In Britain, Elaine Stritch is probably still best remembered for her long-running 1970s ITV sitcom, Two's Company, in which she co-starred with Donald Sinden. But it was on the Broadway theatrical stage that she began her career as an actress and where, now aged 77 and still going strong, she returned in triumph earlier this year in a no-holds barred, one-woman powerhouse retrospective of her amazing life and career.
That highly personal show is currently running at London's Old Vic. Meeting her offstage, I quickly discover that, though she's an actress by profession, her gale force personality is no act; rather it's the pitch at which she lives constantly. It must be tiring being Elaine, and she seems weary: "Oh God, I hate this business, I do" she kicks off, before we've even sat down in the restaurant of the Savoy Hotel, where she resides in luxurious style during her London gig. After all these years in it, I ask? "That's probably why I hate it!"
A challenging guest
Whether in London or in New York, Stritch makes her home at hotels: in London, it's the Savoy (where she lived throughout the 1970s), in New York the Carlyle. She is what they diplomatically refer to in the hotel trade as a challenging guest, rather than a difficult one; and today she's certainly testing them at the Savoy. Looking like a tigress in crumpled white trouser suit and a hat that doesn't come off during the interview, she's a vicious pussycat ready to purr when stroked, but who shows her claws when she wants her own way.
The restaurant is closed when we arrive but she's commanded it as a private interview suite, and though there are no waiters around, we've managed to order drinks: her coffee arrives, but my coke doesn't. "Well, we're going to get it, because that would worry me and then I wouldn't be able to go on with the interview," she replies with sweet concern, quickly to be replaced with bitter impatience.
After several cries of "Hello!" go unheeded, escalating in volume and accompanied by banging a spoon loudly against her coffee cup, she suggests: "How about FIRE? Hello? What's that old joke, 'God finally caught his eye?' Oh, COME ON!" She's now getting exasperated, but luckily, a hapless waiter at last arrives. "We were just wondering what happened to the Coca-cola that was ordered. About last Thursday."
Hard drinking & hard talking
Once upon a time, of course, it would have been something far stronger than coffee on the table. She gave up drinking - "I'm not quite accurately sure when, but it's been 15 or 20 years" - as well as smoking, though not the hard-talking the two encouraged. Nowadays, she says, "my drug of choice is more - I really want more, more, all the time. I'm hungry for experience, hungry for success, hungry for everything. Alcohol makes you think you're going faster, but of course you're going much slower."
As it is now, she goes pretty fast. "I have abundant energy," she admits. "I'm full of energy, I have it to a fault, and I've got emotions that are way oversized." Stritch has appeared in movies like Alain Renais' Providence and Woody Allen's September and Small Time Crooks, and has won an Emmy for her recurring role in television's Law and Order, but her energy is, she says, one of the reasons she's largely a theatre animal. "My energy doesn't sit very well with a movie set when you're in your trailer for seven hours a day - especially if you don't have the lead, you're in there A LOT!"
She began her career in musicals, though not by design and nor because of her voice: "I'm not a great singer, but I sure as hell can tell you what I'm talking about through a song. The greatest compliment I ever had on my voice came from that wonderful woman Cleo Laine. I saw her and said, 'Oh My God, you are ridiculous, I never heard such range in all my life; I only have a range of about two notes!' 'Oh darling, yes,' she replied, 'but what you do with those two notes!'"
Stritch has successfully employed said notes in the original productions of shows by composers as diverse as Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim, the latter of whom provided one of her signature songs, 'The Ladies Who Lunch', when she starred in his 1970 musical Company, playing a middle-aged drunk. People began to think that the actress and the character she was playing were the same; but it's another Sondheim song, 'Broadway Baby', that she is truly at one with.
For a 1986 celebrity concert staging of Follies, she was so keen she actually called the composer up personally to ask to be considered. "I don't even call him up to wish him a Merry Christmas, but to ask him for a job, oh boy! He's off-putting - but things have gotten better over the years. He got more mature and I got more secure, so we're pretty good for 'Hello, how are you?' now. But he scares me."
Insecurity & low self-esteem
It's intriguing to hear Stritch say this, so I reply, "But some people are scared of you, Elaine." She's fully aware: "Oh yes, I know all about that, I do, and I can't help it. The only thing that makes you brusque and hard to get along with like that is insecurity and low self-esteem, which has no humility with it. But my coming on strong is so much a part of my energy. I have to burst into the theatre at night - I can't go in and say hello and get all settled quietly and then go, Yo! I have to start practising when I get up in the morning, to get that momentum going!"
At the same time, she says, "I try very hard to be civil, but I've gotten to the point where I can't put up with the bullshit anymore. I don't want to tell everybody to f*ck themselves, that's not my point. My point is just tell it like it is, will you, because otherwise it's not worth the trouble."
Her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, is all about telling it like it is, and then some: her candid comments on co-stars and directors, her battle with the bottle, songs and stories and much else. "I just think that showbusiness is one of the most difficult professions in the world, aside from the work. I hate the chicanery of it all."
Is that because she eschews such dishonesty - especially onstage? "I don't even know about that. I try to convince myself that I am honest, putting my money where my mouth is, but sometimes I get guilt trips that maybe I'm fooling people. I don't want any Oscars for this straight-forwardness, but I love that old saying, the truth is so much easier, because you don't have to memorise it!"
Sometimes, she says, it's difficult "when you're performing the truth to be surrounded by lies." But then if there's one thing she's learnt in a lifetime in the theatre it is this: "The only thing that everybody agrees on is what time it is, and sometimes not even that".
There's another thing that most people agree on: Stritch is one of a kind. They don't make 'em like this anymore. Ask her why she became an actress, and she quotes a colleague whose answer was 'to get out of the audience'. There's no need, however, to think about crossing the footlights when Stritch is onstage; besides, there's only room for one when she's up there.
Elaine Stritch at Liberty concludes its limited season at the Old Vic on 14 December 2002.