In a review of Woody Allen’s September (1987), People magazine referred to Elaine Stritch in that film as a “…roaring presence, like Godzilla in a stalled elevator…” I like that vivid image, which really captures something about Elaine Stritch. Her death last Thursday on July 17th at age 89 has gotten a tremendous amount of attention, and rightly so. She was a force of nature, especially in her later years with her blunt, in-your-face persona. She liked to cause a ruckus and stir things up. In death Elaine Stritch is still larger than life.
But for all the obituaries and write-ups since her death, I’ll bet that none of them have mentioned Strich’s connection to Bela Lugosi. Earlier this year we saw Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, an excellent documentary directed by Chiemi Karasawa. In it we see in passing a photograph of a young Elaine with Bela Lugosi looming behind her. I wanted to write a blog post about this film and other recent documentaries I’d really liked (Finding Vivian Maier and Particle Fever), though so far I haven’t cranked up the energy to do so. But I was particularly intrigued by the photo of Stritch and Lugosi. Had she been in one of the many stage productions of Dracula with Lugosi? I hoped so, but it turned out not to be the case (though some references give the impression that she actually was in Dracula with Lugosi). The play in question was Three Indelicate Ladies at the Schubert Theater in New Haven, CT (in the interview clip below Stritch says it was at a theater in Westport, CT, so I’m not 100% sure of this). By all accounts that I’ve seen, this was not much of a play. Still, it was Bela Lugosi. In any event, it never made it to Broadway.
Here is a clip of Elaine Stritch on a television show called Theater Talk speaking about working with Lugosi. Her impression of Lugosi’s distinctive way of speaking is pretty good.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me played for months here in New York City. I can’t recommend it enough. Through many interviews and archival clips the documentary gives an excellent picture of her career and the persona she developed over the years. The Stritch we see is feisty, irascible, difficult, outspoken, self-deprecating, blunt, hard to handle, difficult to be around, fun to be around, and very very funny. She may not have the greatest singing voice, but she sells that by the strength of her delivery. Rob Bowman, her musical director for 14 years, accompanist, friend and caring companion is a steady presence at her side in the film. I assume he also had the patience of a saint.
The filmmakers were granted an unusual amount of access to her life. We see her in situations where she’s sick in her bed or in a hospital, vulnerable and afraid. At the time the film was made (it was completed in 2013 and released in February of this year) Stritch was 87 or 88. In it she talks quite openly about being near the end of her life. She could be sharply funny on the subject of death. In an obituary that appeared on my Earthlink news feed, she’s quoted as saying, “You know where I’m at in age?… I don’t need anything. That’s a little scary — when you know that the last two bras you bought are it. You won’t need any more.” I really like that, “…the last two bras you bought are it.” It’s funny and also quite touching.
Stritch’s professional career lasted nearly 70 years, an amazing run for anyone. Many people today probably know her mainly as Colleen, Jack Donaghy’s mother on Tina Fey’s terrific NBC series 30 Rock from 2009 to 2012. Five of her eight Emmy nominations – and one of her three wins – were for her performances on this show. Her constant sparring with Alec Baldwin was memorable. She was also on an episode of The Simpsons in 2010. One of her obituaries referenced her signature “no pants” style (wearing a loose-fitting white shirt over sheer black tights). I think one of the reasons she could get away with this is that even at age 87 she had a pair of really killer legs.
In 2013, Stritch moved back to her home state of Michigan after 71 years in New York City and a series of farewell performances at the Carlyle Hotel, where she had lived for many years. She was an entertainer in her bones, a hoofer to the end. She gave it her all. Elaine Stritch was buried in Skokie, Illinois next to her husband, John Bay on Wednesday, July 23rd. She will not soon be forgotten.
Finally, here is a 25 minute interview with Stritch from the New York Times website.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is available for streaming or DVD purchase from Amazon. It is also can be streamed or rented from Netflix. If you haven’t seen it and have read this far, you probably should. – Ted Hicks