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Anna Kendrick's Great Tribute to Elaine Stritch, Dead at 89

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by Sam Adams
July 17, 2014 1:38 PM
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Elaine Stritch in "Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me"

We're going to see a lot of reactions to the death of Elaine Stritch, the Broadway legend and, most recently, "30 Rock" star, who died today at 89. But this will be one of the best. 

Why? Because Kendrick, who was nominated for a Tony at age 12 for her role in the Broadway production of "High Society," made her indelible screen debut in the otherwise forgettable 2003 movie "Camp," which climaxes when her cutthroat teen literally pulls a fellow actress off the stage at theatre camp to take over a performance of Stritch's signature tune, "Ladies Who Lunch."

Stritch, who made her stage debut at the comparatively ripe age of 19, gave more memorable performances on the big and small screens than it is possible to count, but some of her most delightful were as herself. She had a 21st-century hit with "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," a one-woman show about — what else? — her life and career, and held the spotlight again as the subject of the recent documentary "Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me," which is available to stream on Netflix. She's also the center of one of the greatest scenes in movie history, from D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' "Company: Original Cast Album."

Stritch is in the recording studio, and she's trying to lay down a version of "Ladies Who Lunch," from Steven Sondheim's landmark music. And... she's not getting it. Try as she might, and she does, for hours and takes on end, she can't nail the weary, drawn-out vibe of a society woman at the end of her diamond-encrusted rope — until, when it seems as if the movie itself might collapse from exhaustion, she reaches deep down and pulls out something new and startling.

It's one of those rare moments when a documentary crew is in just the right place at the right time, watching Stritch put every one of her 44 years — and, perhaps, the struggle with alcoholism that runs through "At Liberty" — into a truly incandescent performance. With a teenager miming the same emotions, Kendrick's "Camp" scene is a kind of in-joke goof for theatre buffs, but it's also a sincere tribute to a woman who fought her way up through the ranks and wore her scars proudly.

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