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Being a “difficult” older woman


Elaine Stritch, documentary, bitchflicks‘Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me’.

Our regular cross-post from Bitchflicks.

By Ren Jender.

I remember a woman artist friend talking about Barbra Streisand: “When people called her ‘difficult,’ it was probably just because she asked for a microphone that worked.” Broadway musical star Elaine Stritch’s reputation for being “difficult” is familiar even to those of us who can’t stand Broadway musicals. But all through the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (directed by Chiemi Karasawa, who first met Stritch in a hair salon), I couldn’t help wondering if an 87-year-old man behaving the way Stritch (who was 87 when the documentary was shot) does in the film would be denigrated the way she has been (men are rarely called “difficult”–no matter what they do).

Certainly the men Stritch has worked with in her long career don’t seem easygoing. In one scene Stritch reads aloud a letter Woody Allen wrote her in the ’80s listing point by point the circumstances under which he’ll work with her. One of his many conditions is that she can’t second-guess his wardrobe choices. Earlier we see Alec Baldwin have a hissy fit on camera because he thinks Stritch is stepping on his laugh line (Stritch is playing his character’s mother on 30 Rock). When he stalks out she laughs at him–as does the crew.

This partially Indiegogo-funded film has some superficial resemblance to Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, another documentary that followed a famous older, “difficult” woman as she prepared for and performed in shows, but Stritch doesn’t seem interested in using the film as a tool to bolster her image, the way Rivers did. Shoot Me has no scenes as cringe-worthy as the one in which Rivers takes her grandson to deliver meals to people with AIDS (as if Rivers headlining a fundraiser wouldn’t be a better use of resources) or the one in which Rivers mentions that she pays for the private school tuition of her employees’ children.

Stritch makes her home in a hotel, never had children, and her husband died 30 years ago, so she is free to focus on her own health, career and legacy–and doesn’t feel the need to launch a revisionist propaganda campaign. Stritch isn’t afraid to mumble wry asides when fans in the street approach, and she raises her fists in victory when she learns that she will still be paid for a gig canceled in the wake of a hurricane.

Stritch’s legendary directness and humor are aimed right at the filmmakers and audience, when, in the middle of talking about something else, she looks up to say, “Don’t you think that camera is awfully close?” When the camera pulls back she continues, “We’re not making a skin commercial here.”

Like many other artists, Stritch is working decades beyond the age most people retire. But the activities many senior citizens take up after they stop working–travel, singing, dancing, and acting–have been the staples of Stritch’s career since just before the end of World War II. When she was based in London (a fact that doesn’t make its way into the film though she even starred in a successful TV series there), she worked with the great English actor Sir John Gielgud (in the 1977 film Providence), who made his last film appearance in 1998 when he was 94. Gielgud was able to temper the exertion of his later work by taking smaller roles in films and also acting in radio dramas. For Stritch, her continued career is much more demanding: song and (in a limited way) dance in live appearances where she is the show.

Stritch has diabetes and some memory loss (her recall of long-ago events like her improbable–but photo-verified–two dates with a very young John F. Kennedy is razor-sharp) as well as an unsteady gait (she sometimes uses a cane and although she is unassisted while onstage, she needs assistance to make it there) and her voice shows the effects of age, but she’s still an effective performer. Before I saw the film I thought that audiences must go to her shows for nostalgia or for the same reason people in the mid-1990s went to see Courtney Love live, to see if she made it all the way through her act without collapsing or having a breakdown onstage.

Some of the film’s reviews seem to want to reframe the film as a pathetic spectacle with Stritch as an object of pity. They call Shoot Me “grim,”  “painful,” and “about aging and its myriad horrors.” These reviewers seem determined to review their own fears of aging (or what they imagine the life of an older woman is like) instead of what is actually onscreen. In the same way that disabled and older people shouldn’t be called “inspiring” just for living their lives in ways many of us who aren’t disabled or very old do, the film shows us that the effects of aging for Stritch aren’t tragic–any more than they are advantageous–but just inconveniences and obstacles for her to work around. Stritch herself says of her worry about forgetting song lyrics, “The fear is part of the excitement.”

Excerpts of the show in the film, as well as vintage clips of her recording her signature “Ladies Who Lunch” for a cast album, and even a clip of her acceptance speech for winning an Emmy show that she lets the audience (or in the cast recording, her songwriters) not just see her vulnerabilities, but share them and empathize with them. We see her in rehearsal for the show forgetting the lyrics to “I Feel Pretty” repeatedly and then, during the show, she forgets again, but makes the moment a comic one, getting the audience to root for her as she (eventually) comes up with the next line.

Stritch has a lot of friends, many of whom are much younger than she is: every time we see a shot of her bed at the hotel where she lives we also see a wall covered in post-it notes of names (some of them well-known to us through movies and television) with the phone numbers digitally blurred. Though Stritch has no children we see unrelated, younger people pitch in to help her: during the show and rehearsal, musical director, Rob Bowman, for an upcoming dedication, an assistant who sorts through old photos and other memorabilia and for miscellaneous errands a woman who sat next to her at an AA meeting long ago and in spite of Stritch’s demands (Elaine not only wanted a ride home from the woman; she told her she needed to clean up her car before picking her up again), credits Stritch with helping her maintain sobriety.

Stritch, after many years of recovery, informs us that she allows herself one drink a day, then after a hospitalization (for diabetes) stops drinking again, then during a birthday party at the end is back to “one drink a day.” But the definition of alcoholism is the inability to have just one drink. The revelation that since her retirement (always just around the corner in the film, which was shot two years ago, but as of last year, when she did one last show and moved out of New York seems permanent now), she has upped her limit to two drinks is worrying. In the film she argues that at 87 a limited amount of drinking won’t harm her and is something she feels like she deserves. She says, “It’s wonderful being almost 87. You can get away with just about anything.” Now that she’s 89, she might be right.

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