Stritch: Beyond footlights

HBO shows actress in her pain, glory

May 28, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's a wrenching scene in D A Pennebaker's 1970 documentary about recording the cast album of Stephen Sondheim's musical, Company. Actress Elaine Stritch is trying to record the song "The Ladies Who Lunch." After several faulty attempts, she experiences something bordering on a nervous breakdown.

Given that painful scene, one might expect Pennebaker to be the last filmmaker Stritch would want to make a documentary about her.

But when her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, was on Broadway two seasons ago, it was Stritch herself who approached Pennebaker about making a film. That's just one indication of what a tough - and candid - cookie this septuagenarian Broadway star is. Other indications are scattered throughout the resulting HBO film, which debuts at 8 p.m. tomorrow.

The documentary includes footage of Stritch's show, in which she interweaves songs - including "Broadway Baby," "There's No Business Like Show Business" and the number that could be her anthem, "I'm Still Here" - with autobiographical stories.

There's the story of her first year in New York, when she lived at a convent school while studying acting - and the night she had a date with, and made a swift escape from, classmate Marlon Brando. There's the energetic tale of understudying Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam in New York while playing in Pal Joey in New Haven.

And there's a lot of talk about her struggles with alcoholism, culminating in a scary account of collapsing from a hypoglycemic attack after a night of drinking. She hasn't touched liquor since.

The film and the stories aren't always flattering. There's footage of the traumatic Company recording session. And we see the hard work that went into rehearsals for At Liberty with director George C. Wolfe and writer John Lahr (the show's credits read: "constructed by John Lahr," "reconstructed by Elaine Stritch").

We also see Stritch in makeup and curlers. We see her giving herself an insulin injection at her London hotel - "shooting up at the Savoy," she calls it - during her engagement at the Old Vic. And we see the adulation she receives on stage and her acknowledgment of the loneliness she feels offstage.

Surprisingly, there's no reference to her highly publicized outrage after her acceptance speech was cut short at the 2002 Tony Awards. In fact, in some respects the tone of this film is gentler than Pennebaker's two previous theater documentaries, Company: Original Cast Album and Moon Over Broadway, about the tumultuous journey of the play Moon Over Buffalo to Broadway

But then, if the filmmaker's approach to Elaine Stritch at Liberty (made with partners Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob) seems kinder, perhaps it's because Stritch is so blunt - or to put it another way, dishes so much dirt - about herself that there's no need for the filmmakers to graft on a point of view.

Stritch says her one-woman show was her way of "reclaiming a lot of my life that I wasn't honestly and truly there for." Pennebaker's documentary reclaims the feeling of that show onstage and off in a way that fans of Stritch - and of Broadway musicals- won't want to miss.


What: Elaine Stritch at Liberty

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Where: HBO

In brief: Documentary based on the actress' one-woman show.

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