BEV 2014’s bountiful documentary slate boasts a pair of contrasting yet complementary features spotlighting two resilient women leading roller coaster lives in that most cinematic of cities: New York, New York.
New York identities at BEVFF14
A UK premiere, our first bite of the Big Apple comes courtesy of former Vibe magazine senior editor Laura Checkoway, whose directorial debut Lucky spans five years and focuses on the titular Lucky Torres. We see her before we hear her. She’s got a brightly coloured mohawk and heavily pierced visage, her youthful frame decorated with tattoos galore. There’s a spiderweb on one cheek, ‘BITCH’ on the other. As she says herself: “They read the outside of me. That’s because I don’t let nobody get inside of me.”
Checkoway’s sensitive portrait does indeed ‘get inside’ her, while implicitly indicting the kind of institutionalized dysfunction that can cause someone to matter-of-factly state: “I don’t have parents. I never did. I lived in the system all my life, and I was never adopted.”
Lucky has been moving between shelters in the Bronx and Harlem, after being kicked out of one in Queens. She has a three-year-old son, Joziah, and is acutely aware of what her precarious situation could mean for their future. “I really have nothing to give to my son but my love. Right now I’m not stable. And I don’t want him going through what I’m going through, seeing his mother in pain.”
Lucky hits on a plan to navigate the Administration for Children’s Services rules, in order to secure them an apartment. It seems insanely convoluted, but that’s what her position demands: Lucky’s options are limited. She was a stripper. Sold drugs. At the start of the doc she takes her distinctive features to a modelling agency: “Look at my face. I know I’m a seller. So buy me!” Later on she dons a wig ahead of a job interview for a home nurse’s aid, but to no avail.
We’re given glimpses of self-loathing journal sketches and plaintive diary entries. We learn of a horrific experience within the foster care system. A prescription for ‘mood disorders’. The promise of stability is suggested by a new relationship with Leilani, a wonderfully warm and grounded women Lucky meets at Pride. But will it be enough to overcome these accumulated hurts? Peeling away layers without recourse to an emotive narration or glib editorializing, this unerringly frank film makes the viewer care about its subject, while also provoking uneasy thoughts about the society that made and threatens to break her.
Swap welfare cheques and housing shelters for Stephen Sondheim, award ceremonies and hotel suites and you’ll arrive at the rather more rarefied milieu for our other magnetic New Yorker profile. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me was assembled with sharp-eyed affection by seasoned factual producer Chiemi Karasawa, stepping out for the first time as a director. Her star – and that’s putting it mildly – is the incomparable Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, eighty-something years young and still singing, dancing, storytelling and cracking very goddamn wise. By way of introduction: “Look, I’ve got a certain amount of fame. I’ve got money. I wish I could fuckin’ drive. Then I’d really be a menace.”
You don’t need to know exactly who this person is to know that she is somebody, turning heads and signing autographs around Central Park. In recent years Elaine’s lit up TV land with a recurring guest role on 30 Rock, as Jack Donaghy’s fearsome mother Colleen. Fans of Tina Fey’s whipsmart sitcom (which bluntly should be everyone) will cherish behind-the-scenes footage of La Stritch discussing blood sugar levels with bad boy co-star/fellow diabetes patient Tracy Morgan or mock cattily referring to the man who plays her onscreen son as Alec ‘Joan Crawford’ Baldwin.
The clearly devoted Baldwin and Fey are among the famous colleagues interviewed, alongside thespian pals John Turturro and, poignantly, the late James Gandolfini (to whom the film is dedicated). There’s a handwritten letter from Woody Allen, who directed Stritch in 1987’s rare serious drama September, plus possibly the greatest telegram ever – in 2010 no less! – from Elaine’s erstwhile musical theatre collaborator and endless source of inspiration Sondheim (whose repertoire forms the basis for her intimate Café Carlyle show Singing’ Sondheim Again… Why Not!, tracked here from candid rehearsal to riotous performance).
As entertaining as these fulsome celebrity tributes are – and in this case they’re very entertaining, gushes always tempered by gags – Karasawa’s camera wisely keeps focused on the extraordinary lady at its centre, understanding that we’ll will happily watch her do anything. Reminisce about her 1960s champion Noël Coward. Explain her quarter-century struggle with alcoholism and subsequent drink-a-day regime. Recall great romantic misadventures – dumping Ben Gazzara for, um, Rock Hudson – and her beloved husband John Bay, actor and Bay’s English Muffins scion, who passed away after a decade of marital bliss. One day we see Elaine unpacking the muffins that she still eats in his memory. The next she’s telling an anecdote about the time she turned down JFK’s advances.
In a career filled with acclaim, it’s no surprise that she earned the most for an autobiographical stage show – Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2001) – which originally won the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. Transferred to television by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, it went on to pick up a stack of prizes at the Emmys in 2004, enabling an absolute humdinger of an acceptance speech. It’s one of countless laugh-out-loud moments, but this slalom of zingers also packs a rare emotional punch, with bittersweet reflections on love and illness and loss.
As she says while getting her eyes tested: “I like the courage of age. Bette Davis said it better than anyone, you know. Getting old is not for sissies. And I never liked the word ‘old’. I like ‘older’. I’m getting older, every single day, and so is everybody else. So we’re all going together. Baboom baboom baboom. And why not enjoy it? ‘Cause there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it.”