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The Last Star: Elaine Stritch 1925–2014

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by Mike Spry
July 18, 2014 1:19 PM
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We don’t have stars anymore. Not in the way we used to. I may not even be old enough to remember true stars, who embodied the marvel of showbiz with their very demeanor, their aura, how they carried themselves on screen and off, on stage and off. Instead we have celebrities, contrived and constructed fabrications from an industry that falsely believes it can create what can only be born. A star was someone who didn’t need to be announced, but whose very presence accomplished just that. Growing up, I had an organic sense of this distinction: Johnny Cash on The Muppet Show, seeing Carson’s monologue the first time, Kathleen Turner’s voicing of Jessica Rabbit. They simply embodied the essence of showbiz brilliance. But the one that stuck with me, and yet seemingly doesn’t fit into this pantheon of stardom, was Elaine Stritch, who passed away Thursday at 89.

I have a very lucid memory of Stritch appearing on The Cosby Show in the late 80s. I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up, and I have no other memories of television of this era as rich in specificity. For whatever reason (as memories do), Stritch’s three appearances on The Cosby Show find a way to the forefront of my consciousness from time to time. In the 70s and 80s, Cosby was a star; even without the help of sycophantic tabloidism, I was well aware of this. My parents had his comedy albums. I watched Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids Saturday mornings. Even by the way he carried himself onscreen as the patriarch of the Huxtable clan, you knew Cosby was something to behold. But here, in season 6 of Cosby’s 80s vehicle, was Stritch as Rudy’s teacher, Mrs. McGee, going to toe-to-toe with the giant that was Cosby. And I remember reading the credits at the sitcom’s end and wondering, who the hell was Elaine Stritch?

Elaine Stritch was a star. 

To consider her stage credits is to review the history of contemporary theater. The native of Detroit trained at the prestigious Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York. She made her theater debut before the end of the Second World War and was a mainstay on stages in London and New York for nearly 70 years. She performed the work of Noël Coward, Irving Berlin, and Stephen Sondheim, among many others. Stritch was conceived for the stage. She had it all: she was beautiful, she was funny, she could sing, she could dance, she could drink, she could curse, and she had a voice that begged for your attention. She would finally win a Tony upon her fifth nomination for her one-woman play Elaine Stritch at Liberty in 2001, a review of her career that was still far from over at the time.

She was the original Trixie Norton on The Honeymooners

She was a contemporary of Marlon Brando, Ben Gazzarra, and Rock Hudson, and dated them all.

She appeared in films with Charlton Heston, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Jane Fonda. 

She worked with David O. Selznick and Woody Allen.

She lived in the famed Carlyle Hotel in New York. Who else, but a star, lives in The Carlyle? 

And Stritch wanted to be a star. When asked why she chose show business, she replied, “I want to be talked about. I want to be written about. I want everything about me! And I don’t make any bones about that.” But she never begged for it, not on stage, and not on screen. Instead she demanded it, which illustrates the divide between stardom and celebrity.

But all of this meant nothing to a barely teenaged kid watching The Cosby Show on a Thursday night in 1989. There was no IMDB. No Wikipedia. My phone had no answers. But I knew Stritch was a star. I knew by the way she carried herself. By the way she allowed the acting of her younger less experienced co-stars to inform hers. By her impeccable comic timing and palpable grace. By the manner with which the studio audience fell for her every twitch, hung on her every syllable, cackled at her every eye roll, breathed her every moment. By the way she commanded attention without asking for it. But mostly, in the way she battled Cosby. In their moments on screen together, one had the sense that you were watching something magical, something brilliant, something special. 

Stritch made her last appearance on television on 30 Rock, playing the mother of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, a fierce and hilarious performance. Her work with Baldwin and Tina Fey on the show was a fitting end to her television career: a stage actress with a brilliant performance on a New York filmed sitcom. 30 Rock was a show that mocked the industry within which it existed, the extravagance of celebrity, and the superfluous nature of stardom. It argued that behind the curtain there were no stars, only degrees to which the moderately talented were pandered to. I fear this was more documentary than satire, or as Stritch herself put it, “Everybody’s just lovin’ everybody else just too much for my money.”

Damn right.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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