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Life's been a cabaret for Elaine Stritch

Elaine Stritch, who will appear in a documentary

Elaine Stritch, who will appear in a documentary "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me." (April 2013) Credit: Isotope Films

Elaine Stritch sat in her usual place on the tiny raised stage at the Café Carlyle, the pricey 100-seat cabaret/supperclub in the hotel where the actress has lived for more than a decade. Nearby, right where he has hovered for years, was her supportive pianist Rob Bowman. She wore pretty much what she always has -- her trademark white shirt over sheer black hose exposing the skinniest legs this side of the aviary.

But this time was different. It was, she blurted out right away, "the most frightening night in my life."

You see, it was the final opening night of her final five-night engagement before Stritch, 88, moves back to -- what? -- the suburbs of Michigan. A new documentary, "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," has its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival April 19 (it will be shown again April 22 and 23). Then she is off to a condo near her nieces and nephews in Birmingham, Mich., where she claims, though we don't believe her, "I'm going to go to sleep at 9 o'clock at night. I've been up all night all my life."

It is hard to imagine Stritch without Manhattan, and vice versa. For 71 years, she has built a legendary theater career, a life and a persona that feel inseparable from the sophistication, the challenge and the crankiness of New York.

But there she was at her old haunt in a program she named "Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin' Over and Out." Tom Hanks was beaming at her from one of the tables. So were Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Tony Bennett and, seated away from the action, the Metropolitan Opera's music director James Levine.

And yet she was scared, at least she was at the start of the 75 rambling, yet still-riveting minutes. Her health has not been good, a combination of worsening diabetes, a broken hip and reports of small strokes. "Every time I leave the building," she growled out of both her comic mouth and her serious eyes, "I fall on my ass."

The memory glitches like those she had at her 85th birthday concert at the Carlyle are more frequent now and, clearly, it offends her daunting sense of professionalism. "There's something that really frightens me," she said, "and that is fear." The Stephen Sondheim specialist who set the forever-standard for "The Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company," sang only three numbers that night -- and none of her historic ones. Mostly she told anecdotes, some picked by adoring audience members from a circulating bowl of story cues, and she vamped with stars in the audience -- especially Hanks -- admitting, "I am so crazy about famous people, people who entertain me."

Some stories are familiar from "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," her thrilling 2002 Tony-winning solo and Emmy-winning HBO special about the captivating ups and downs of a "good Roman Catholic girl" from the Midwest whose surprisingly innocent but seductive diversions included JFK and Marlon Brando. "Don't ask me about Brando," she said to us, "It's too . . . complicated."

There wasn't an inauthentic moment in her then and there isn't now. Chiemi Karasawa, who made the new documentary, told me in a recent phone interview how marveled she was at the access Stritch gave her. "She never wanted to hide anything," she said. The result is a "very intimate movie. Her softer side comes out. She is very generous."

After what Karasawa, 44, describes as a "bittersweet courtship" (Stritch wasn't sure she wanted to do it), the two became "very, very close." The filmmaker knew of Stritch's celebrity and difficult reputation. They were thrown together by happenstance because they both went to the same hair stylist, who said "you really should make a documentary about her."

"I went to Google and YouTube," she remembers, "and I couldn't believe she wasn't a household name. I recognized that most people who know her history are theater buffs or older than I am. My mission is to bring her into the foreground. She is so singular."

Of course, fans of "30 Rock" know she won another Emmy for playing Alec Baldwin's mother on "30 Rock" by being more ornery than her son. What most people don't know is that, when the documentary's financing fell through late in the project, Baldwin contacted Karasawa and asked, "How much do you need?" He now is listed as executive producer of the film.

What was Karasawa's biggest surprise about Stritch over three years of work? "Her incredible vulnerability," she answered immediately. "How could someone with her experience and talent become completely nerve-racked before every show. It is almost like every new opening is her first one. I think that's why she is so good. She's terrified to be bad or mediocre."

As anyone knows who saw her in the 1996 revival of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," Stritch is as disciplined and as outrageous in dramas as she is in musicals. She appears never to have learned to have a country-club face, the female smile that hides the life on her skin.

Her timing and rhythm are still elastic, still impeccable. Even if she can't remember all the words, her voice has the same strong-whiskey power. She needs a cane now and someone to help her walk to the stage. She can't dangle her legs around anymore like a woman who remembers what it meant to get a charge out of adolescence, but her attitude still says it.

Karasawa, who was with her during her sickest days, says we shouldn't assume Stritch is gone from New York forever. "I wouldn't say never," said the filmmaker. "If somebody offered her a great role or a cameo. . . . I've learned that the only consistent thing about her is her complete unpredictability."

The terror lifted through that evening. Before long, the marvelous raconteur took over and, finally, she said with great sincerity and comparably great grin, "I am so happy, I am so happy I'm here." We shared the feeling.

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