Broadway legend Elaine Stritch had only been in New York a few short days before managing to find herself at the center of a very perplexing controversy. A day after saying f-word on the “Today Show” to the shock of Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, Stritch, who uses the term with great regularity, was still befuddled by the brouhaha it had caused. “I don’t know what the hell happened!” she said.
At Feb. 19’s Paley Center premiere of the documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” many of her friends felt similarly. “I think America’s too sensitive about everything. Things that America’s been told are wrong, are forbidden, if you say them or do them, even if America doesn’t really understand why they’re forbidden or why they’re such a big deal, it’s like a horror story,” said Alan Cumming. “Actually, when you consider that America was made because some Puritans left England because that wasn’t puritanical enough, it puts everything in perspective,” he added, with a smile.
Sandra Bernhard, no stranger to controversy herself, was firmly in the anti-censorship camp. “It’s a word that everybody uses and it just comes up in funny places,” she said. “If anybody can get away with it, it’s Elaine.”
Stritch, 89, was back in New York for the week to promote the film, which followed her for over a year and featured appearances by friends like Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Hal Prince and Cherry Jones. In April, she said goodbye to her apartment at the Carlyle Hotel and relocated to her home state of Michigan. Despite an outpouring of affection for Stritch from a crowd that included Alec Baldwin (a producer on the film), Nathan Lane, Marlo Thomas, Tovah Feldshuh, Ellen Burstyn and Jane Krakowski, there was a bittersweet tinge to the celebration. That sense of sadness echoed in the film, which documented Stritch’s struggle with diabetes and the emotions of aging.
Seeing the movie brought up mixed feelings for Stritch. “I loved the film and I loved that woman up there and I loved who I was watching but I don’t want to be her and I don’t want to be in the film,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s just too fucking sad.”
After the credits rolled, Stritch, who was using a wheelchair and dressed in her trademark oversize glasses, tights and a Tom Ford top, addressed the audience and alluded to her recent health struggles with her characteristic sharp humor. “Every time I get up to walk, I fall. What’s that song, every time I fall in love, I what a little, what is that?” “I cry a little,” several voices responded. “Oh, well that’s a given!” Stritch offered, without skipping a beat.
A packed cocktail reception commenced in the Paley Center lobby following the screening. Stritch, ensconced in the corner, entertained a crowd of reporters. Other attendees, many theater veterans, shared industry gossip about Oscar ballots and discussed “House of Cards,” while glancing excitedly at guest Sebastian Arcelus, who plays journalist Lucas Goodwin on the show.
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” opens Friday in New York. Director Chiemi Karasawa and Elaine Stritch will be doing an opening day Q&A following the 5:30 Lincoln Plaza showing and the 6:30 show at IFC.
(Pictured: Tovah Feldshuh, Elaine Stritch and Sandra Bernhard at the Paley Center reception)