House lights down! Tempo up! Cue the follow spot! Elaine Stritch, feisty and fabulous in a white silk shirt and black tights, weaves her way through a jammed audience, steps up to the very tiny, and very famous, stage at the Café Carlyle, New York City’s premier cabaret. Elaine makes the stage, the room, the tables, and most certainly our hearts, swell with her talent and power. At 87, Elaine is one hell of an entertainer! And also very fragile.
ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME, a new film produced and directed by Chiemi Karasawa, has a cast of thousands, including a fearless performer; a diabetic; an alcoholic; a needy friend; a giving stranger; a comedienne beyond compare; a fearsome perfectionist; and an open, honest, irascible old broad. Oh, you guessed? These are all aspects of one icon who tells the story of her early days—a convent girl at heart—on the stage, the false starts, the failed and full-blown romances, and her present-day struggles with time as she soldiers on from rehearsal to performance, cursing, praying, laughing, despairing, and wrestling with the tricks aging plays on us.
My company, Providence Productions, Inc., has taken on a new role: Executive Producer. The role of raising money for someone else’s project is a challenging exercise. What is easy and important for me is defending the safe space of a really wonderful artist. IsotopeFilms, Chiemi’s production company, has made many films. Although she’s been hired and often-awarded for her producing in the past, ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME marks Chiemi’s directing debut.
Each choice a director makes is freighted. I’ve watched the complex process up close as Chiemi has pored over and shaped hours and hours of footage, original music, clips, and photos. (Where, for instance, to work in Alex Baldwin’s wry interactions, Cherry Jones and Tina Fey’s takes on Elaine, John Turturro’s astonishment, James Gandolfini’s amorous declaration, Hal Prince and George C. Wolfe’s admiration, and Rob Bowman and Julie Keyes’s dedication?) We have held a series of screenings for small groups. Each time the audience would applaud Chiemi, but she has always been quick to quiet the folks to ask for feedback so she could make refinements. Like Elaine, Chiemi is a perfectionist.
The latest viewing of the current cut of the film was different. We showed the film on a state-of-the art screen at my alma mater, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, because Elaine had seen it only on the filmmaker’s small laptop. And let me tell you, it’s a gut-wrenching experience to view in a small room the loving, yet raw, portrait of an aging, ailing, fierce icon—while she watches along with you.
In the movie, Elaine focuses on her love affair with the audience. When the house lights came back up we turned to the back row to applaud Elaine. She thanked us and talked a little of her appreciation for Chiemi, for the response from the present audience, and for those who have supported her work over the years. And then people just hurled themselves at her. Well, I’m exaggerating. They were orderly and gracious in wanting the chance to tell her how much the movie meant to them.
When can you see the film? Not just yet. It will premiere in New York City in April. I feel confident that the audience there, and then beyond, will feel fulfilled. Both Chiemi Karasawa and Elaine Stritch are vulnerable and victorious, and I count my lucky stars to be, as they say in the biz, “attached.”