STAGE TO SCREENS: Chatting with "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" Documentarians

STAGE TO SCREENS: Chatting with "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" Documentarians This month we talk to the filmmakers of HBO's "Elaine Stritch at Liberty": D A Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob. The delightful documentary debuts May 29 at 8 PM ET.
Elaine Stritch in
Elaine Stritch in "Elaine Stritch at Liberty"

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If you saw the Tony Award-winning one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, in which the actress journeyed from quintessential "Broadway Baby" to one of "the dinosaurs surviving the crunch," you don't need to be told that it was a sensational entertainment. (I'll drink to that!)

An Image Entertainment DVD preserves 2 hours and 40 minutes of the show, and now HBO is presenting a 95-minute documentary that mixes highlights of the evening with a behind-the-scenes look at its unique star.

Did working with D A Pennebaker, who filmed the documentary, "Company: The Original Cast Recording" (in which Stritch had a near breakdown while recording "The Ladies Who Lunch") put her at ease? Says Pennebaker, "I never saw her at ease yet. I'm waiting for the moment. We've always gotten along, in a peculiar way." Adds Nick Doob, "Penne and Elaine were always squabbling — sort of a brother-and-sister squabbling. With Elaine, it's always a little bit confrontational."

The documentary shows Stritch, the master chef, at work. Preparing a five-star meal, she's assisted by gourmets, including writer John Lahr and director George C. Wolfe, in the multi-tasking required for a spectacular presentation — best served with "a piece of Mahler," and "another vodka stinger." It starts with Stritch's last show on Broadway. ("God, what'll I do tomorrow night?" she asks.) In her dressing room are cue cards containing a checklist: "Blood sugar [Stritch is diabetic], eyebrows, lipstick on teeth . . . " and another list to consult at intermission that includes checking on the lyric to "I'm Still Here," which she sang in the second act.

Following the delivery of Stritch's opening line, we flash back nine months to rehearsals at the Public. "When this show flops," the once legendary drinker tells the director, "I'm going into a saloon . . . [and] start drinking again." Prior to the dress rehearsal, Stritch comments, "If anybody tells me this is just a rehearsal again, I'll kill them."

At London's Savoy Hotel, Stritch watches Jimmy Cagney on TV doing the title song in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and notes, "One of the great talents of all time!" Later at a warm-up session at the Old Vic, Stritch does a brief Cagney impression. Giving herself an insulin shot at the hotel, she remarks to her assistant, "Shootin' up at the Savoy."

Says Pennebaker, "Elaine called me up and said she wanted a movie made of the show — long before anybody thought of it being shot [in its entirety]. Buying the rights and putting a thing like this together is kind of elaborate for us. Usually, we work at the behest of a producer, or somebody that can afford to pay for the thing."

Chris Hegedus (Mrs. Pennebaker) observes, "We were always interested, just because Elaine is such a great character. We wanted a combination of her in real life and her stage show, which is about her life, woven together. We went across with her on the QE II to London. We attended her yard sale in Sag Harbor, though that didn't make it into the film." Pennebaker interjects, "It was a Broadway version of a yard sale. She was selling plates and asking, 'Want me to autograph 'em?'"

Stritch, says Hegedus, compared herself to Carol Burnett, who was featured in the Pennebaker-Hegedus documentary, "Moon Over Broadway" (a look at the comedy Moon Over Buffalo): "Elaine said the difference between Carol Burnett and herself was that she [Elaine] was dangerous. I think that sort of describes how it is to be around Elaine."

I mention that, in an interview with Philip Bosco (Burnett's Buffalo co-star), the actor told me that during the Boston tryout he could have driven a knife through director Tom Moore's heart. That strikes a chord with Pennebaker, who admits, "There were moments [while making of the Stritch documentary] when [HBO executive] Sheila Nevins and the three of us [he, his wife and Doob] were sitting around at four in the morning wishing we could drive a knife through [Stritch's] heart. But she was right most of the time."

The biggest challenge, believes Pennebaker, "was dealing with a person who has an incredible, detailed sense of how something on Broadway should be performed — every aspect of it. We're used to a looser format [observing unobtrusively]. It was hard to put what we do into her formula. Ninety percent of the time, [Stritch] was absolutely right. It was kind of interesting for us to see that — and learn from it. It was a great learning experience."

Doob says, "We shot about 30 hours, something like that. It wasn't a huge amount [of footage]." For awhile, the project was on and off. Explains Hegedus, "We couldn't find the money fast enough. Elaine and the producers sold the show to a production company that then sold the rights to HBO and BBC. Then they made the DVD [of the whole show]. After HBO saw that, Sheila Nevins decided she'd like to have something more like what we wanted to do. She initiated getting us back on the project."

Hegedus continues, "I wanted the film to crossover to younger audiences. We added archival footage and photographs" of people Stritch speaks about in the show. Among them are pictures of the young Marlon Brando, whom Stritch dated in drama school; Rock Hudson, whom she dated during the making of "A Farewell to Arms"; a clip of Ed Sullivan, who introduced her on his TV show as "Eileen Strit"; and Gypsy Rose Lee, about whom Stritch sings in the "Zip" number. The whole routine about the time when Stritch played Melba Snyder in a revival of Pal Joey while understudying Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam is one of the best parts of her show.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Pennebaker's first name is Donn Alan ("It's a Welsh name; two words, one name"). He was advised to use initials by one-time partner, filmmaker Shirley Clarke ("The Connection," "Cool World"). A native of Pennsylvania ("just outside Philadelphia"), Hegedus first worked with her husband (since 1977) on a short called "Jingle Bells," which showed Robert Kennedy making a tour of high schools.

Upcoming for the Pennebaker-Hegedus-Doob team are, says the senior member, "a film about Al Franken — watching the election process through his eyes, and a film with The Who, or the remains of The Who." Any chance either will feature a cameo by Elaine Stritch? "Not at this point, but who knows what tomorrow will bring?" ***

END QUIZ: In the 1965-66 CBS-TV series, "The Trials of O'Brien," Elaine Stritch played Miss G, secretary to Manhattan attorney Daniel J. O'Brien. Who played the title character: a) Pat O'Brien; b) Peter Falk; c) George C. Scott? (Answer: Next column, June 6)

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and may be reached at ChannelingTheatre@hotmail.com