Liz Smith: Elaine Stritch — She’s Still Here! But She Won’t Sing It Because WE KNOW She’s Still Here!
And more from our Gossip Girl: Liz reviews la Stritch’s Sondheim tribute at Cafe Carlyle
“WHEN we allow ourselves to exist truly and fully, we sting the world with our vision and challenge it with our own ways of being,” said Thomas Moore.
A more apt description I could not imagine of Elaine Stritch, who has stung the world, and challenged it. (And oh, how the world has been thrilled by her sting!) Her vision unaltered by time and tide. A self-created phenomenon.
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I HAVE only known Elaine Stritch, the girl from Birmingham, Michigan, since 1953 when she was still what passed for an ingénue about to become a character and then a star.
I like to flatter myself that I know Elaine better than almost anyone else. I have lived through her wonderful devout Roman Catholic family, her many famous boyfriends, her ups and downs in the theater, her crushes, her life away in London with the likes of Sir Noel Coward, her irritating of Frank Sinatra, her travel to Rome to make the movie “A Farewell to Arms,” where both of us developed a big heartbreak over Rock Hudson, her happy but short-lived marriage to the gifted late comic actor John Bay, her being recognized as a rare national treasure. And, finally the Antoinette Perry Award for her one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty.” Alas, CBS cut her off as she started her thank you speech. (Nobody has ever, to my knowledge, known what Miss Stritch was about to say!)
These nights, at the swank hotel of her choice, where she sleeps with her door open so the Carlyle staff can check up and keep watch so she doesn’t die suddenly of a severe diabetic attack, Elaine is once again on a roll as a true star. She is the ever-surprising Stritch — not just a talented actress/singer, but a most down-to-earth human being who performs the instantly recognizable classic Sondheim songs and also a few I had never heard of. Her instincts as an artist are so great that her forgetfulness at 87 becomes a part of her genius.
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MOST ACTORS, stars and wannabees haven’t really joined the genuine human comedy. They have a public persona but lots of it is fake. Stritch, on the other hand, is “with” her audience. She comes out and tells the audience the truth. “Oh, shit, I forgot that lyric!” or words to that effect, as she brings her pianist Rob Bowman into the act. “What do we do now?” or “Where are we?” She asks him throughout, “What’s next?”
What’s next indeed! She also tells us exactly who Stephen Sondheim is and her mixed feelings about him. Then she treats him to all the hit songs he has written, performed by persons other than Elaine on Broadway. She teaches Mr. Sondheim quite a lesson, I would think, since she does his work better than anyone else can.
I have known a lot of true, true New York-Hollywood characters after 60 years in this business. Elaine is one of the last larger-than-lifers left. In a world where there are no more Barrymores, Thurbers, Tallulahs, Tennessees, Capotes, and even any of the Gabors — Elaine remains quintessential.
In her personal life, she drives people mad collecting food from tables to take back to her own refrigerator. She wants the most expensive important things in life — free limousines, hairdressers, and makeup artists.
But she’s a big star! A real one. Still, she is so palpably honest that she lures her audiences into a relentlessly supportive mini-frenzy. She invites intimacy and connection. It’s like the old days of Judy Garland, without the bathos. Nobody feels sorry for Miss Stritch.
Onstage, behind her musicians, her face becomes a miracle of elastic emotions — elfin, craggy, sensual, antic, angry, morose, romantic. Her body is kinetic and wiry as she paces the tiny stage. And yet, it is also softly yielding as she leans on the piano or huddles up a little closer to her armless chair. She has no sex; she is all sex.
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NOBODY knows what she is about to do. Including, probably, herself. The last time she consulted me, she told me she was going to do an evening of Elton John songs. I thought this was a terrible idea and said so. But I am sure she made the decision, independent of my critique, to do Steven Sondheim’s master works instead, onstage in her spare uniform of long white shirt and skinny black tights, performing as never before. (Elaine is not a talent who needs the distraction of beads!)
In this show I found her gently — as gently as Elaine does anything! — chiding the great Sondheim. Oh, the roles she could have inhabited — the lead, Desiree in “A Little Night Music”… Phyllis of the “Follies”… Mama Rose in “Gypsy.”
Elaine Stritch is still here. You bet your ass!
P.S. Oh, and in case you are wondering, Elaine does not sing Sondheim’s song of show biz survival, “I’m Still Here.” Elaine’s life, her career, this show is all about her being “still here.” We know it. She knows it. No point in redundancy.