If only Elaine Stritch could have secretly attended her own funeral like Tom Sawyer, she would have witnessed a standing ovation.
In early 2013, the legendary Broadway star abandoned her longtime home of New York for Birmingham, Mich., where she underwent surgery a year later for stomach cancer, a diagnosis she never publicly revealed. After she died in July at 89, she was buried at a small service in Chicago alongside her husband, the actor John Bay.
The priest delivered an unconventional eulogy, especially when he started to warble “I Feel Pretty,” one of her signature covers from “West Side Story.” He ended his remarks by asking the attendees to give Stritch a round of applause. “We stood up and clapped,” recalls Chiemi Karasawa, the director of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” who spent two years trailing—and later befriending—the grand dame. “He wanted us to acknowledge her as a performer, because that’s how she wanted to be acknowledged. I thought it was touching he picked up on that.”
The pastor learned all about Stritch, whose prolific career spanned the stage (“Sail Away,” “Company”), films (“Romance & Cigarettes,” “September”) and television (“One Life to Live,” “30 Rock”), by viewing the documentary on the plane ride to the service. “That’s how he got to know who she was,” Karasawa says over a recent lunch with Variety at New York’s Lambs Club. “And that’s something you wouldn’t expect—to go to a funeral and have the priest come over and congratulate you on your movie.”
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“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” which opened in February to a 98 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, isn’t just a portrait of a beloved entertainer. It’s also a meditation on aging, made more poignant on repeated viewings after Stritch’s death. The premiere held in New York last winter was her final appearance. Stritch addresses her own mortality in the film (a battle with diabetes later left her wheelchair-bound). “Dying is easy,” Stritch tells the cameras. “Comedy is hard.”
After the film wrapped, Karasawa stayed in close contact with Stritch and visited her bedside for what would be the last three days of her life. “She was still Elaine but there was so little of her,” Karasawa says. “I would get on the bed with her, and she would hold my hand really hard. She had this grip.” Karasawa tried to not cry, yet Stritch would have none of that. She boomed in her trademark voice, “Darling, just let it flow.” “I started bawling,” Karasawa says.
During those final hours, Stritch had her TV tuned all day and night to Turner Classic Movies. With her eyes closed, she’d fire off her zingers. “Who is that, Garbo?” Stritch barked. “Great looking broad. [Beat] Boring as hell.” Even in her frail state, Stritch wanted another shot at show business. “I could not believe in her condition, she just wished she could be acting again,” Karasawa says. “She was never going to let go of her opportunity to perform.”
Karasawa once asked the Stritch what else she wanted from life. “I’d really like an award,” Stritch told her. For what? “I don’t know,” Stritch huffed. “I just want another award for something!” Appropriately enough, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is being campaigned this Oscar season in the best documentary category. The film has recently been screened at industry gatherings hosted by D.A. Pennebaker, John Turturro, R.J. Cutler, Chris Hegedus and Rachel Grady. “I loved the documentary,” says director George C. Wolfe, who is helping organize a Broadway tribute for Stritch next week. “I thought it was thrilling—it captured her ferocity and vulnerability.”
Karasawa, a seasoned script supervisor and Oscar-nominated doc producer (2008’s “The Betrayal”), had never directed a film when she set about making the movie in 2010. She got the idea from her midtown hairdresser, who also did Stritch’s hair, and started scheduling appointments at the same time so they’d bump into each other. It took four months of courting before Stritch called Karasawa’s office at 2 a.m.—“God knows what she was doing at 2 a.m.”—and left a message declaring, “I really want to get started and do this thing.”
It was Stritch’s suggestion for Karasawa to take the director’s chair. “I pitched this idea to Elaine, ‘We’re going to find a fancy director with some kind of success,’” Karasawa remembers. “She looked at me like I was an idiot, and asked, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’” Stritch didn’t care about her lack of experience. “Surely you can pull this thing off,” Stritch told Karasawa. “Plus, I don’t want to meet anybody else. I’ve already gotten to know you.”
Funding for the documentary, which cost $500,000, was cobbled together by a string of private financiers. Karasawa shot Stritch for 300 hours, but after she maxed out her American Express card, she set up an Indiegogo campaign in early 2013 to raise funds for post-production. When Alec Baldwin, who played Stritch’s son on “30 Rock,” heard about their efforts, he donated $50,000 and invited the director over for an interview. The film also features testimonials about Stritch from Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones and Hal Prince.
Despite the glowing reviews, Stritch wasn’t pleased the first time she saw “Elaine Stitch: Shoot Me.” Karasawa had the idea that she would sneak Stritch into a screening room at NYU, and let her secretly watch the movie with a small crowd. Of course, Stritch made so much of a racket when they rolled her in (“Hello gang!” and “I can’t see a goddamn thing!”) that everybody was aware of her presence, and suppressed their laughter, which Stritch mistook for them not liking the movie.
“She sat down and gave me this whole addendum for what I need to change—to make it better and funnier and more wardrobe,” Karasawa says, explaining that Stritch was mad that she wore the same fur coat for most of her scenes. “She basically criticized it from top to bottom. She had never experienced herself onscreen as anything but a performer. Here she was playing herself.”
It was a role that made her so uncomfortable, she briefly stopped talking to Karasawa. But all was forgiven following the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere in April 2013, where 500 enthusiastic New Yorkers erupted in applause. “As I’m walking her down to the front podium, Elaine said, ‘See the changes I suggested really worked!’” Karasawa says. “I hadn’t changed a thing.”
Karasawa has been in full Elaine mode the last few weeks, cutting clips for the Broadway memorial service on Nov. 17. When she misses her friend, she listens to the dozens of voice messages that Stritch left her. In one she plays over lunch, Stritch calls her up with a rant about wanting the documentary to sell for millions, a delayed membership to a country club and a caretaker who complains about giving her a bath. Then she ends her monologue with a kiss. “Love you,” Stritch says, sounding motherly.
Stritch used to say she was frightened by death. “She didn’t want to be alone,” Karasawa says. “She didn’t want there to be nothing.” But she was at peace when her time came. Karasawa leaned over and told her how much she would miss her. “I miss me too,” Stritch responded. It was her way of saying goodbye.