Elaine Stritch, who died on Thursday at 89, sat down with me in February to talk about the new documentary about her life as a legendary stage and screen actress. When I got to her hotel on the Upper East Side, Stritch didn’t feel like she had enough energy to get out of bed, so she invited me into her room. It wasn’t a conventional interview. Stritch stayed under the covers with her white sneakers propped up. Her answers often had nothing to do with the questions, and she’d close her eyes between thoughts, as if she was about to fall asleep. Then she’d spring back to life with another story.
Stritch was joined that day by a man who identified herself as her interior designer, an assistant and Chiemi Karasawa, the director of “Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me.” She agreed to let the doc’s cameras follow her for a year, for an an unflinching look at her struggles with diabetes, alcoholism and aging. (The critically acclaimed-doc is likely to factor in this year’s awards season race.) Here’s an edited transcript of one of her final interviews.
You’re getting attention on the Internet today.
Oh, that’s great. Isn’t that good? There’s so much sarcasm in the world, you never know if anybody is serious or not. It’s getting to be mind-boggling.
The reason you’re trending is because you said the f-word on “Today.”
I did? In regards to what?
I think you said it by mistake.
No, I never say the f-word by mistake. I do it on purpose. [To her interior designer]: You should sit down for five minutes!
Interior designer: I was redecorating your room. I want you to see the fireplace from your bed.
Stritch: God, I can’t believe it’s such a lousy day. Is it going to get better?
Karasawa: It’s nice to see a little snow.
Stritch: Not when you got an infection in your left leg and you can’t get in the car because you can’t walk anymore. That’s a little tough, when the weather turns on you. This lovely car pulled up, and the door swung open, and I’m getting all this attention like the queen of the May, and I look down and there’s a pool of water!
How many times have you seen the movie?
About three. Oh, I loved it. I thought everybody did their job so well, which was no surprise to me, because everybody on this film is really talented. Kind of offbeat talented. They weren’t just a bunch of kids that were doing a documentary. I wanted to treat it with a combination of humor and tragedy.
Did you like to have cameras around?
It didn’t bother me.
There’s a scene with you performing and you forget your lyrics on-stage. Was that frustrating?
I was 88. That’s late in life to be remembering Noel Coward lyrics. He used to have a contest with me. I knew what I was talking about when I talked about lyrics. I said, “I will not make one mistake tonight in my lyrics, Mr. Coward.” [Pause.] What’s your first name?
I can’t remember your name. It’s odd.
Karasawa: You should have seen her when I was trying to initially teach my name, Chiemi. She finally said, “What does your mother call you?” I said, “Chiem.” She said, “That’s what I’m calling you, Chiem.”
I noticed you joined Twitter.
Yes, isn’t that interesting? I recently found that I did too.
Did you like doing “30 Rock”?
You’re not being serious.
Yes, I am. I want broader comedy than that. I never had a question in my mind about Noel Coward’s humor. I knew there was a basic humor in Noel Coward that was healthy and funny and fast. And the melodies were funny and fast. Oh, I loved Noel Coward with a passion.
How did you meet Stephen Sondheim?
I met him at a big party at a very close friend of mine in Michigan. He was a producer. I was studying to be an actress. And I saw this guy across a crowded room, and it was something about him that really blew my mind, because I knew how smart he was and it was scary.
Did he offer you a role that night?
No, I think he was attracted to me. I’m an unusual broad.
James Gandolfini is featured in the movie.
I don’t want to talk about Gandolfini, because I’m too emotional about it. I haven’t gotten over it yet. It just broke my heart is what he did. Like die. When I think of the work that we missed from this guy. To see “The Sopranos” would have meant some kind of an exit for a great actor, and it was his first big part.
Were you a “Sopranos” fan?
Oh yes. It was the only time I walked up a flight of stairs at the Carlyle when the elevator wouldn’t come. How did that music go?
Interior designer: 70s porn music.
Did you hear about a woman recently arrested for forgetting to return your movie “Monster-in-Law.”
What?! Wait. Hold the phone. I want to know what part she watched.
Was it fun making that movie?
No, I made it fun for me, so I could stand to be out there. But, you know, I love it that people think I had a ball. I think it’s great when you can confuse people and convince them, “Oh boy, you look like you’re having a ball.” I know Walter Matthau used to go, “We did it again.” Because he wasn’t having any fun at all. He was sick of getting up at 6 o’clock, and he wasn’t well. And the same thing with Jack Lemmon, he was tired. We’re all tired. I decided to pack up again and give it another shot. I’m very happy that I did. I didn’t declare any retirement. If somebody sent me a play in the mail, I’d grab it, if there was a good scene.
Would you come back on Broadway?
Yes, if they pay me and I like the play.
What would you like to do?
A new play that I’ve never read before. Or I can settle down in Michigan and do a revival of a play. I love Ann Arbor.
The interview ends and I get up, when Stritch calls out, “Where did my darling interviewer go?”
Oh. Are you? It was lovely talking to you. It’s fine if I could be interviewed here and not in some fluffy place.
I really loved the movie.
I get so glad when somebody approves of me. Even now. I just get a thrill.