NEW YORK — The foghorn voice emanating from within a Manhattan salon could belong to only one person on Earth. And indeed there she sits, Elaine Stritch, friendly but formidable, even with bits of aluminum foil sticking up from her head like the points of a crown.
Convention and Stritch have been lifelong foes, so this defiantly unglamorous sight is not necessarily a surprise, nor the fact that the 89-year-old Broadway and cabaret legend (and late-in-life “30 Rock’’ star) had decided at the last minute to switch a Globe interview to coincide with her hair appointment.
Hovering protectively behind her in the salon is Chiemi Karasawa, the director of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,’’ a documentary that opens in the Boston area on Friday. Where did the title come from? “She’s so brazen with her dialogue that we thought it’s a double-entendre,” Karasawa explains. “ ‘Shoot Me,’ like ‘roll camera on me,’ and ‘Shoot Me,’ like ‘I can say whatever I please.’ ’’
The film captures its subject’s singular verve, but “Shoot Me’’ also offers an unflinching look at Stritch’s struggles with diabetes and at the toll taken by old age.
That toll is evident in her periodic memory lapses during the interview, but Stritch’s larger-than-life personality and trademark bluntness are very much intact as she talks about mortality, Stephen Sondheim, Noel Coward, her late friend James Gandolfini, her youthful (and chaste) dates with John F. Kennedy, and why she agreed to subject herself to the scrutiny of a documentary crew.
Stritch: “I’m not in the best of shape. I’ve had three boom-boom-boom operations, and on my way back to Michigan to get a fourth one. Let’s talk as little about that [expletive] as possible.’’
Q. What was it like having cameras on you 24/7, more or less?
A. [Nodding toward Karasawa] She’s a wonderful woman to work with. Not many people can be on board for it and take the criticism which I can give. I’m not afraid to talk about anybody if I’m
respectful and can tell the truth. I just love to tell the truth. I’ve never realized what a load off your mind it is. Anyway, I said [to Karasawa], come on. Rich people get rich ideas, so let’s lean on you.
Q. And you’ve led a rich life.
A. That I certainly have, yes. Now I need a Kleenex or two. And a scriptwriter. [Laughs] I’m fine, I’m not nervous, I’m just fine. Boston has thrown me a little.
Q. What part of Boston could possibly intimidate you?
A. The one with critics in the second row.
Q. “Company” tried out in Boston, right?
A. “Company,’’ and Noel Coward, “Sail Away.’’ Of course he wasn’t nervous, or pretended that he wasn’t nervous. All his life he pretended. He was a pretender! He was a guy that would never let anybody know that he was upset for a minute. Noel Coward’s “Sail Away,’’ that’s when the opera singer [Jean Fenn] got the sack and I got her part. They said: “Make it work.” My experiences in Boston were very showbiz, and very exciting, and lots of changes going on: Opera singers getting sacked, and Elaine being pushed on the stage and saying, you know, “Sing A-flat in your head.”
‘My experiences in Boston were very showbiz, and very exciting. . . . Opera singers getting sacked, and Elaine being pushed on the stage.’
Q. In the film, you were the indomitable Elaine Stritch that people know, but there were also moments of vulnerability. Why did you feel that side was important to show: your struggles with diabetes, your human moments?
A. I was tired of carrying it alone, quite frankly. You know, when you get to the stage in your life where every time you open your mouth you get a laugh, you get tired. “Don’t pile it on me all the time. Could we just talk straight for a few minutes?”
Q. You said in the film, “I like the courage of age.” I wonder if you could elaborate.
A. [Laughs] Well, you know, unless you’re going to be a phenomenon and live forever, we’re all going to leave the building at 5:30, you know what I mean? So I refuse to get afraid of it. Or I just don’t want to get afraid of it. But I’m going to because it’s going to get closer and closer and closer to not knowing what the hell your reservation is for.
Q. In the film, Cherry Jones says you are “the conduit to a time that really was the golden age of theater in this country.’’ I’m wondering if you’ve felt a responsibility, because you carry around so much tradition, so much history, to pass that on to younger performers?
A. Oh my goodness, do I ever. Because I want them to know. I could be making all this stuff up, and you can’t make this stuff up. You can’t make up a Noel Coward story, for love nor money. . . . Hal Prince. Or Stephen Sondheim, God knows.
Q. You talk about him in the film: You say “How does he know how I feel, how I think?’’
A. Oh well, how does he? Oh, he’s just so magical. He’s a magical man. And every once in a while comes dynamite humor. Dynamite humor. [A ringing phone suddenly cuts her off.] That’s Steve! [Laughs]
Q. On Gandolfini, with whom you starred in “Romance & Cigarettes,” it must have been tough to see him in the documentary. Were you guys simpatico from the beginning?
A. [Her eyes filling with tears] Yes, I was crazy about him.
Q. And he about you, it’s evident.
A. Yes. [Jokingly] But he behaved himself about it.
Q. When you left New York, it was news. How has it been going back to Michigan?
A. I hate to say this, but I’ve had so much bad luck since I moved back to my hometown. Medical stuff. This is bound to be coming at me at this time in my life. Whenever I get criticized about spoiling my health: They can’t get me for smoking anymore because I’ve quit. I’m having a couple of drinks a day now. What do they think I’ve been doing? There aren’t enough drinking hours in the day to be as dead as they think I should be. And I’m almost 90 years old!
Q. The Elaine Stritch that people are familiar with, was that always part of your personality, or was that something forged in your early years in show business, when you had to be tough?
A. I think the latter. Oh yeah. I could do it, too. I could walk in a door and look like Rosalind Russell any day of the week. Oh yes. And I convinced them, too. I didn’t have a pass made at me till I was 50. Because they were all scared of me. Until I turned 50, and began to soften. [Laughs.] But I love fooling the people. That’s one of the reasons you get into showbiz: to make-believe, to pretend. And so why not do it and get paid for it?
Q. I’ve heard the story about you and JFK . . .
A. Oh yeah yeah yeah.
Q. You must be one of the few people who did not succumb to his charms. Why not?
A. Because my mother and father said to cool it in that department. So I was not running into the arms of JFK. I was saying, “Later. Call me.” And I gave him my telephone number. “Give me time . . . and you’ll be the first on my list.” And boy, would he ever have been. I’d have gotten my hair done four times that day. Whoo!
Q. So what Hal Prince says of you in the film, there’s some truth to that? He says there’s still some of the convent girl in Elaine.
A. Oh sure. You can’t shake the convent girl. It’s like belief in God. And we all have to believe in God, don’t we? I don’t want to have a discussion about whether there’s a God or not. That’s another interview.Interview has been condensed and edited. Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.