Elaine Stritch, one of the most iconic stage actresses of her generation, died Thursday at her home in Birmingham, Mich. She was 89.
Stritch's first stage roles came in the '40s, and she received her first Tony nomination for her work in the classic play Bus Stop. On stage, she was perhaps best known for her work in shows written by the composer Stephen Sondheim, and her interpretation of the song "Ladies Who Lunch," from the Sondheim musical Company, is usually considered the definitive take on one of the most famous songs of Sondheim's career. The sequence where she attempts to record the song in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary film about the making of the original cast recording of Company also gives a great taste of both her ability to interpret and perform a song and her sometimes prickly interactions with collaborators.
Stritch's outspokenness placed her in a long tradition of bold Broadway women with unique voices, and as the years went on and she continued to perform, she started to seem like the last link to an era of Ethel Merman and Carol Channing, an era of women whose bluster and attitude was as much a part of their appeal as anything else. Stritch finally won a Tony in 2002 for her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, which took the audience on a quick tour through her career, including stories from her life on the stage and her struggles with alcoholism. Pennebaker turned that into a television presentation that also won Stritch the second of her three Emmys.
The same approach applied to the solid documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which came out earlier this year. Directed by Chiemi Karasawa, the film follows Stritch through a series of typical days as she launches one last cabaret production and guest stars on 30 Rock (another role that would win her an Emmy). It also delves into her past, including her complicated relationship with alcohol and the loss of her husband, John Bay, one of the heirs of the Bay's English Muffins company, when he died in 1982. Stritch never remarried and continued to eat exclusively Bay's English Muffins until the end of her life, as shown in the film.
Shoot Me is unique for depicting the life of a performer over 80, something that is rarely touched upon in American entertainment. But it also keys in to why Stritch kept working, and often kept working with the same people: She might have been hard to work with on occasion, but that was because she was always attempting to make the material better. And usually, thanks to her mere presence on stage or on screen, it would be. Her work on 30 Rock, for instance, found the small, beating heart in what could have been a too-nasty relationship between her character, Colleen, and that character's son, Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy.
Stritch was also a frequent fixture of awards show, and not just because she kept winning them. Her speeches when she won awards and simply wouldn't get off the stage were highlights:
But so were moments when she just showed up to present and groused about not being nominated:
Above all, Stritch was so beloved because she was so original, so wholly herself. One always got the sense that if the American theater hadn't found room for her, she would have simply started standing at the center of the stage until it was forced to put her in every show it could. She had slowed down in recent years, but appeared in a revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music earlier this decade. Her work will live on not just in the memory of a woman who was a fun presence in the entertainment scene, but in the memory of a woman who played a large variety of complicated, sometimes, yes, difficult characters and found the parts of them that were human and worthy of empathy. Elaine Stritch may have pushed and pushed and pushed, but that was always because she was looking for a way to make things better. And most of the time, she found it.
If you still don't feel like you know Elaine Stritch, watch this clip. You will afterward.