CHANNELING THEATRE: Chatting with "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" Documentarians
This month we talk to the filmmakers of HBO's "Elaine Stritch at
D A Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob. The
delightful documentary debuts May 29 at 8 PM ET.
If you saw the Tony Award-winning one-woman show, Elaine Stritch
Liberty, in which the actress journeyed from quintessential
Baby" to one of "the dinosaurs surviving the crunch," you don't need to
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
Did working with D A Pennebaker, who filmed the documentary,
The Original Cast Recording" (in which Stritch had a near breakdown
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
director George C. Wolfe, in the multi-tasking required for a
presentation — best served with "a piece of Mahler," and "another vodka
It starts with Stritch's last show on Broadway. ("God, what'll I do
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
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
to rehearsals at the Public. "When this show flops," the once legendary
drinker tells the director, "I'm going into a saloon . . . [and] start
again." Prior to the dress rehearsal, Stritch comments, "If anybody
this is just a rehearsal again, I'll kill them."
At London's Savoy Hotel, Stritch watches Jimmy Cagney on TV doing
song in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and notes, "One of the great talents of
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
to her assistant, "Shootin' up at the Savoy."
Says Pennebaker, "Elaine called me up and said she wanted a movie
the show — long before anybody thought of it being shot [in its
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
that can afford to pay for the thing."
Chris Hegedus (Mrs. Pennebaker) observes, "We were always
because Elaine is such a great character. We wanted a combination of
real life and her stage show, which is about her life, woven together.
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."
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
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
Pennebaker, who admits, "There were moments [while making of the
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
The biggest challenge, believes Pennebaker, "was dealing with a
has an incredible, detailed sense of how something on Broadway should
performed — every aspect of it. We're used to a looser format
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
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.
Hegedus, "We couldn't find the money fast enough. Elaine and the
sold the show to a production company that then sold the rights to HBO
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
added archival footage and photographs" of people Stritch speaks about
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
Welsh name; two words, one name"). He was advised to use initials by
one-time partner, filmmaker Shirley Clarke ("The Connection," "Cool
A native of Pennsylvania ("just outside Philadelphia"), Hegedus first
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
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;
George C. Scott? (Answer: Next column, June 6)
Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and may be reached