Reviews of the legiter “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” left no superlatives on the table — the show was a tour de force combining comedy, drama, music and a singular life spent committed to the theater. HBO’s docu widens the lens to expose even more of Stritch, whether it be historical, pre-performance or in rehearsal, yet doesn’t limn anything not covered in the one-woman show. The richness of the stage work, however, far exceeds anything the filmmakers bring to the docu; funny how a well-written reminiscence can work better than a black-and-white photograph.
In “At Liberty’s” credits, John Lahr is billed as having “constructed” the piece, which Stritch has “reconstructed.” Andy Picheta, Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker have furthered reconstructed the work to show bits of its evolution and Stritch’s timidity away from the footlights. Their best historical addition is footage from the recording of the “Company” cast album; it captures moments of defeat and recuperation that underline Stritch’s determination and commitment.
Enough of the stage show — a Tony winner and a hit in London, Gotham’s Public and on the road — remains untouched in the film, as she covers her resolutely Catholic childhood, her move to New York as an 18-year-old and a handful of romances, including dates with Marlon Brando, Ben Gazzara and Rock Hudson. Hers is a convivial life with consequence — love, drinking, Noel Coward and more drinking take up the bulk of the anecdotes — and the honesty with which she attacks her triumphs and shortcomings remain intact, despite the filmmakers’ embellishments.