Coming to Theatres August 17, 2012

In Depth

People In Film | Elaine Stritch

Elaine Stritch | Raspy-Voiced Grandma

While casting PARANORMAN’s voice talents, producer Arianne Sutner made a point of not looking at headshots. She wanted the choices to be based on “not on what actors looked like, but on what they sounded like.” It’s hard to imagine that when the filmmakers first heard Elaine Stritch trying out for the role of Norman’s beloved grandmother that they ever needed to see her headshot. Stritch’s one-of-a-kind voice –– variously described as brassy, gravelly, whisky-soaked and, in one People Magazine profile, “like a car shifting gears without a clutch” –– has become its own Manhattan landmark, courtesy of all those Broadway musical show-stoppers and that sharp-tongued comedic delivery of hers. And who can easily forget the hoarse laughter? Sutner is only too happy to acknowledge this national treasure: “Through Elaine’s incredible and warmly textured voice, you can hear the life lived, and that was so important for her scenes. With her impeccable timing, she makes her character sympathetic but never saccharine.” Stritch’s casting provided another source of Kismet too. Although her voice was never recorded at the same time as that of her co-star Anna Kendrick (who voices Norman’s older sister), the two actresses share an unexpected connection: the great musical composer Stephen Sondheim. In 1970, Stritch brought the house down with her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a song from Sondheim’s musical Company that quickly became her trademark. (Here’s a YouTube reminder of her rendition). More than three decades later, Kendrick performed the exact same world-weary number (with more than a nod to Stritch’s rendition) in the film Camp, in which Sondheim himself has a walk-on cameo. Nor is PARANORMAN the first time that Stritch has dabbled in the dark arts. She appeared several times on British television in Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, most memorably in the story “William and Mary,” in which she played the wife of a man who has cheated death by having his brain preserved. In his introduction to the episode, Dahl observed that comedy should always be worked into horror stories, in order to provide light to the shade, and that was why Stritch had been cast – as "an actress who knows a lot about humor."

Elaine Stritch | The Eternal Broadway Baby

Born the youngest of three girls into a wealthy Detroit family, Elaine Stritch soon proved herself a natural entertainer by telling stories and doing imitations for the benefit of party guests. Her saltiness would be honed later on Broadway, where she began her career in the revue Angel in the Wings and then made her name in such shows as Bus Stop and Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey, and with her Tony-nominated performance in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. And then, of course, came Stephen Sondheim. Stritch would later memorialize her many stage tales, including her time as Ethel Merman’s understudy in Call Me Madam, in a triumphant 2002 one-woman show, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, that became the subject of an Emmy-winning D.A. Pennebaker documentary. Filled with ribald recollections, the show finally won her that elusive Tony Award. A few years later, those monologues morphed from Broadway into a 2005 cabaret act that she performed at Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel, where she also resides. “She describes her life in show business as a sequence of bittersweet comic pratfalls, many of the worst tumbles fueled and fogged by gin martinis,” noted The New York Times. “Her self-deprecating tale of the time Tony Curtis fixed her up on a disastrous blind date with Frank Sinatra is one for the books.” To that list could be added the time she served as Noël Coward's muse, dazzled Richard Burton, drank Judy Garland under the table, and was on the verge of accepting Ben Gazzara’s proposal of marriage, until her eyes happened upon Rock Hudson in full tuxedoed splendor. It didn’t last. Now defiantly sober, Stritch has never shied away from discussing her battles with the bottle – she took her first drink at the age of 13 – and a struggle with diabetes that made her give up smoking too. For Stritch it was never a question of cutting back after just two drinks. “I find it easier to abstain than do a little bit of anything,” she told People magazine in 1988. “I'm not a 'little bit' kind of dame. I want it all, whatever I do. I drank a lot and had a ball. Let me tell you how much I loved booze..."

Elaine Stritch | Sondheim Show-Stopper

In his book Finishing The Hat, Stephen Sondheim says that his Company musical number “The Ladies Who Lunch” was a rare case of his writing a song not so much for the character, but for the actor playing that role. “The character of Joanne was not only written for Elaine Stritch, it was based on her, or at least on her acerbic delivery of self-assessment, as exemplified by a moment [Company librettist] George Furth had shared with her: they had entered a bar at two in the morning and Elaine, well-oiled, had murmured to the bartender in passing, ‘Just give me a bottle of vodka and a floor plan.’” Although she has long given up those legendary “vodka stingers” she crooned about, Stritch’s identity is indelibly linked to this and other Sondheim classics, to the point now of several affectionate spoofs. But that doesn’t mean they always shared the same vision. For the 1985 revival of Follies, the composer-lyricist wanted Stritch to play the role of 49-year-old Sally. "Stephen Sondheim asked me about ‘I'm Still Here,’” she told an interviewer a couple of years later. “Now you better agree with me or I'll kill you. I just feel I'm too young to sing 'I'm Still Here.' I really mean that, seriously . . . I'm not gonna to sit down and say that 'I've had it/ And I'm still here/ And I got through most of last year/ But I'm here.' I mean, it's ridiculous." Instead, she successfully lobbied to play the part of Hattie, whose “Broadway Baby” belter became another of Stritch’s signature songs. She was 60 at the time. Now well into her eighties, Stritch is still going strong on the Sondheim front. From July 2010 to January 2011, she succeeded Angela Lansbury in the role of the wheelchair-bound Madame Armfeldt in a revival of A Little Night Music, earning huge ovations before uttering her very first line. Critics too liked what they heard. Wrote The Toronto Star, "Stritch offers a sophisticated gloss on her by now patented, plain-talking woman who reveals all the home truths everyone ever wanted (or didn't) to hear about themselves. When Stritch tears into her big set-piece, “Liaisons”, about all the affairs in her life, it's not just a witty catalogue of indiscretions but a deeply moving fast-forward through a life filled equally with love, loss, joy and regret." In 1980, for a special Sondheim birthday concert, Stritch presented her version of “I’m Still Here” to the composer.

Elaine Stritch | Drop-Dead with One Liners

Arguably, Elaine Stritch’s best moments on the big screen came as Mia Farrow’s mom in Woody Allen’s 1987 September. The role of a wise-cracking mother and former movie star might seem like Stritch typecasting, but critics were bowled over by the performance. Many of them predicted an Academy Award nomination that, alas, never came. Describing the film as a neo-Chekhovian drama set in a Vermont summer house, New York Times critic Vincent Canby singled out Stritch’s performance for special praise: “Stritch, in a beautifully controlled performance, delivers the film's best lines with rich irony. They describe a character who has been through the mill and has learned something. 'You look in the mirror,' she says, 'and realize something is missing. Your future.'” As it happens, Stritch got the part somewhat through the back door. Allen had already shot the entire film one year earlier with Farrow’s real-life mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, in the same role. Unhappy with the footage, Allen decided to restart from scratch with several new cast members, Stritch among them. "I was in London, recuperating from having polyps removed from my vocal chords when Woody called me," Stritch told People. "I could barely talk at the time. When he identified himself I dropped the receiver, poured myself the largest glass of Beaujolais-Villages known to man, chugalugged it, got back on the line and sounded fine." In professing her admiration for Allen in the same interview, she chose her words carefully. "He treated me with tender loving care and unbelievable sarcasm," she says. "When he'd see me in the halls in the morning before my hair was combed out, he'd do a W.C. Fields double take, like I was scaring people. He did it a couple of times after my hair was combed out too. But I took it as part of his humor, his way of setting a mood." Not that that stopped them reuniting years later in Allen’s 2000 madcap crime comedy Small Time Crooks. Reviewing in the New York Observer, Rex Reed offered this somewhat backhanded compliment about her role as a snobby socialite: "Elaine Stritch can still stop you in your tracks with a meaningless, drop-dead one-liner (which is all she gets here)."

Elaine Stritch | London Calling

After taking Stephen Sondheim’s Company to London’s West End in 1972, Elaine Stritch decided to stay there. She did so with the encouragement of Noël Coward, with whom she shared a mutual admiration society stretching back to the days she starred in the original 1961 Broadway production of his musical Sail Away. It was Coward’s view that America wasn’t ready yet for “Stritchie,” as he called her. As he predicted, Britain took her acerbic talents to heart. Not only was she a hit on stage, but she became a household name on British television in the London Weekend TV culture clash sitcom Two’s Company that ran for four years and earned four BAFTA nominations. Stritch played an American writer of sensationalist thrillers who shares her London residence with a disapproving English butler, played by Donald Sinden. It wasn’t long before Stritch became a darling of the British chat-show circuit. London was also the place Stritch met the real love of her life, the Chicago-born actor John Bay, whose family owned Bay’s English Muffins. They met when they were rehearsing Tennessee Williams' Small Craft Warnings and married in 1973. They would spend nine years living in the Savoy Hotel. When they returned to New York in 1983, they bought a Victorian house on the Hudson River that they restored together. "It was John's decision to come back. He felt it was time," she told People. "I turned my back on a very successful career there. Noël was right. They really loved me." Later that year, Bay died of a brain tumor.

Elaine Stritch | License to Act – But Not to Drive

Arriving in New York City, Stritch got to pursue her dream of acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School. This is the same Manhattan training ground that groomed Tony Curtis, Rod Steiger, Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando (whom she dated). But Stritch has little patience for discussions about acting methods. "I don't know what the hell I'm doing up there half the time. These performers that go on about their technique and craft—oh, puleeze! How boring!” she snorts. “I don't know what technique means. But I do know what experience is. I know in my gut when I've done a scene right." While known for Tony-winning stage performances, Stritch is no slouch when it comes to screen acting, particularly on television, where she received an Emmy Award in 2007 for her guest appearance as Alec Baldwin’s domineering, high-maintenance mother in NBC’s 30 Rock. She would go on to be Emmy nominated for the same role for the next three years in a row and for a performance in a Law & Order episode. Her screen acting career hasn’t always been so fortuitous. Cast as Trixie in The Honeymooners, she was fired by co-star Jackie Gleason, for being too much like him, even before the series aired in 1955. Her film roles, starting with her big screen debut in The Scarlet Hour, have also been scattershot, although she has the distinction at least of appearing alongside some of the some biggest names in cinema. She appeared in Three Violent People, starring Charlton Heston; she provided comic relief as an American nurse in David O. Selznick’s 1957 remake of A Farewell To Arms, with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones; a year later, she appeared in The Perfect Furlough, with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh; and then there was Providence, the first English-language film by French New Wave legend Alain Resnais, in which she held her own in a cast of heavyweight thespians that included John Gielgud, Ellen Burstyn and Dirk Bogarde. She would later enjoy something of a resurgence in the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau vehicle Out to Sea, had a minor role in the John Turturro-directed film Romance & Cigarettes, and appeared opposite Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda in the romantic comedy Monster-in-Law – a diva dream team if ever there was one. From a personal perspective, her most memorable filmmaking experience must have been one particular scene as the lusty widow in Cocoon: The Return. Stritch got behind the wheel and screeched away in a 1955 Ford Thunderbird. "Here's the big surprise, I don't drive, and it shows. I was so scared shooting that scene, and I didn't want a double,” recalled Stritch. “Jack Gilford got in that car . . . He went right up to the windshield the first take. And his wife was standing on the sidewalk. And you never saw such a look on a woman's face in your life! You know, the whole paycheck was going out the window."


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