You can take the girl out of New York City, but — oh, hell, if you’re Elaine Stritch, you can’t even do that. After 70 years in the spotlight, the legendary stage actress, now 89, cleared out of Manhattan last year for retirement in Michigan, but recent weeks have seen her pop back up in the city in which she made her name. There she is in newspaper interviews and dropping an F-bomb on “The Today Show”; there she is in the audience at plays, wearing her signature hat and oversize glasses. She’s ubiquitous — the Where’s Waldo of the New York theater world.
Ostensibly she’s in town to promote “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” a new documentary by first-time filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa that deals with her final show and subsequent relocation to suburban Detroit. But, honestly, Manhattan is in Stritch’s blood and vice versa. If you’re a newcomer — or only know the actress from her role as Jack Donaghy’s mother on “30 Rock” — understand that this woman is the Grand Old Broad of Broadway, a gravel-voiced survivor of more productions and more living than you or I will ever know. She was nominated for a Tony in 1956’s “Bus Stop,” had a play written for her by Noel Coward in 1961, played Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on Broadway in 1963, sang “The Ladies Who Lunch” for Stephen Sondheim in 1970.
She was the life of the party, even when the party was just her. That led to a drinking problem, and dealing with the drinking problem led to 2001’s one-woman show “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty,” in which Stritch told all as only she could and finally won a Tony after five tries.
What is there left to prove? Only that the show’s never, ever over. “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” covers the period of rehearsals and performances for Stritch’s farewell cabaret stint in the spring of 2013, singing Sondheim at Café Carlyle, downstairs from her rooms in the hotel. At the same time it’s a portrait of a tough yet vulnerable woman fighting age with everything she’s got, giving in, getting frightened, fighting some more.
Much of this is uncomfortable to watch. The words to the songs are starting to go — songs practically tattooed on her DNA — and no one is less forgiving of that than she is. Stritch is diabetic and in one harrowing scene has a hypoglycemic episode, becoming disoriented and whimpering “I’m scared!” to Rob Bowen, her musical director/human crutch. Her final live appearances at the Carlyle are exercises in audience indulgence and suspense, wondering when Stritch will blow a line and what she’ll do when she does.
The flip side to a great ego, of course, is great insecurity, and Karasawa tracks that back through the years, including footage from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary “Company: Original Cast Album,” in which Stritch listens to the playback of her “Ladies Who Lunch” performance and screams “Shut UP!” in frustration.
She’s a diva — she knows it, we know it, the director knows it — but over the years Stritch seems to have learned that the only way to deal with that is honestly. So she’s a paradox: a diva with no illusions about herself.
This is what endears her to people, from the well-wishers who greet Stritch like a long-lost relative on the street, to the celebrated friends who testify. The latter include Alec Baldwin (who executive produced the film), Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones, director George C. Wolfe, producer Hal Prince, and the late James Gandolfini, who muses that if he and Stritch had been the same age, they might have had a great, messy affair. There would be many more interviews if Stritch hadn’t outlived almost everybody she knows. (Curiously, the one person who should be here and isn’t is Sondheim.)
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is very much about deciding when to call it quits and whether it’s possible for a Broadway baby to do so, even as she nears 90. Throughout the film, you sense Stritch trying to talk herself into retirement as though it were a lesser role in an out-of-town tryout. How do you leave the stage when the stage is your life? What does not having an audience look like? “I want out of New York,” Stritch insists to a friend over the phone. “About 65 years ago, I wanted in. And I swung that.” But, to paraphrase St. Stephen, she’s still here, and she’s still swinging.