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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Video: Entertainer Elaine Stritch, 90, On Drinking After Long-Term Sobriety

3 Substance

“Drinking is what scares me the most because it’s such a warm, inviting escape,” says the legendary Broadway and cabaret entertainer Elaine Stritch in Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a new documentary about her life and career. For Stritch, who is known as “Broadway’s last first lady,” her life was her career, and the documentary has been widely praised as a rawly honest portrait of a rawly honest women who, even now at age 90, says that she has never felt real except when she is onstage performing for an audience. Be that as it may, the “Elaine Stritch” persona was one of high hilarity, biting, brassy, blunt and boozy, if not downright blotto.

To the under-40 crowd, Stritch may be best known for her work on TV’s  30 Rock. But back in the day, she starred in some of Broadway’s greatest plays and musicals, including Company, in which she sang “Ladies Who Lunch” with such brio that some 50 years later it remains a cultural touchstone. And decade after decade, award after award, she was an alcoholic.

At 76, in 2001, she made an electrifying comeback with a cabaret show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” reprising her career’s signature songs and bantering about her many past highs and lows in which the joke was always at her own expense, such as the time she dumped Marlon Brando to pursue Rock Hudson. “And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be.”

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me shows Stritch rehearsing for what is likely her final performance, in her cabaret show “Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time.” At 90, she is battling a serious case of diabetes and the maddening symptoms of memory loss with a show-must-go-on spirit. “The disparity between the blazing stage performer with the glare of a lion on the prowl and the frail, fearful old woman seen in the hospital after a medical crisis could hardly be greater,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times.

Yet the most surprising revelation is that during the filming she began drinking again after 20 years in recovery, about which she was characteristically open. She says that she will allow herself only one cocktail a day (she favors Cosmopolitans.) “It relaxes me,” she says in a moment fraught with quiet desperation.

The film ends as Stritch is preparing to leave New York forever to return to Michigan, where she was born and raised. It is poignant farewell to a life, or at least a career, lived full out, even in the face of the disease of addiction, which has not finished with her as the credits roll.