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Stritch Needles Baldwin; Vidal on JFK: Tribeca Film Fest

Elaine Stritch in a still from
Elaine Stritch in a still from "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me." The documentary debuted this week at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Source: Smart Broad Films via Bloomberg

Two icons in their twilight all but stole the start of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Elaine Stritch, 88, who recently bowed out from performing, and Gore Vidal, who died last year at 86, are the subjects of terrific documentaries having their debuts here.

While anticipated films about Richard Pryor and Muhammad Ali won’t screen until later this week, first-time director Chiemi Karasawa has the set the bar high with her wonderful, raw “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.”

“Shoot Me” not only captures the Broadway grande dame’s prickly eccentricity and one-of-a-kind charisma, but the universal struggle of coming to grips -- or not -- with endings.

Karasawa’s cameras trail Stritch in the months surrounding her decision to leave both the stage and her beloved New York City for semi-retirement in Michigan.

With access any documentary maker would kill for, “Shoot Me” takes us inside the rarefied world of a local star.

Whether greeting well-wishers as she walks the streets of Manhattan, jaunty and unsteady, or castigating the film’s cameraman for missing a shot, Stritch is a force not to be trifled with.

“Alec ’Joan Crawford’ Baldwin,” she snipes at her “30 Rock” costar, perhaps more seriously than intended, after one not-so-smooth rehearsal. (Baldwin co-produced this film.)

Still Here

The Stritch temperament and will that dominated D.A. Pennebaker’s 1971 film “Company: Original Cast Album,” are not only on view, but somehow amplified in reverse proportion to her physical decline.

In one harrowing scene, a frail and panicked Stritch lapses into hysteria and befuddlement during a diabetic episode in a hotel room.

Both resigned to the future (“It’s time for me,” she says from a hospital bed) and reluctant to let go (she commandeers the planning of a Manhattan rehearsal space being designed in her honor), Stritch and this fine film are never less than captivating.

Gore Vidal

If “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” isn’t quite as beguiling, it’s mostly because so much of the writer’s life is already well chronicled. (Not that anyone should pass up a chance to revisit Vidal’s legendary take-downs of Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley).

Writer/director Nicholas Wrathall does a heroic job of packing Vidal’s eventful life into the film’s 89 minutes.

In interviews and film clips, “Gore Vidal” traces his development from childhood privilege through the high-flying decades as arguably the best-known face of an American public intellectual.

Even late in life, Vidal (who, like Stritch, blessed his biographer with nearly unfettered access) spared no one his lacerations, including old pal John F. Kennedy. Vidal kept a portrait of JFK in his home as a reminder, he says, “to never again be taken in by anybody’s charm.”

Such telling, personal moments are mostly missing from Whoopi Goldberg’s well-intentioned “I Got Somethin’ To Tell You,” a film (recently acquired by HBO) about the pioneering black comic Jackie “Moms” Mabley.

‘Moms’ Mabley

A star of the black theater circuit beginning in the Jazz Age, Mabley expanded her reach to white audiences in the late 1960s with endearing -- and subversive -- TV appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

With her floppy hat and wildly hued floral-print house dresses, Mabley removed her dentures and played the straight-shooting granny to the hilt, using her nonthreatening appearance to broach racially charged subjects.

In one of the best clips -- Goldberg, in her directorial debut, makes fine use of old TV appearances -- the affable “Moms” tells talk show host Merv Griffin how warmly embraced she is among Southerners, who affectionately call out to her with the nickname “Trigger.”

“At least, that’s what I think they said,” she tells a slowly comprehending Griffin.

But the film’s most revealing moment comes when a former Apollo Theater dancer tells of Mabley’s real nickname: Mr. Mom. Old photos show the lesbian comic in mufti -- a man’s suit and tie.

What was life like for Mr. Mom? Goldberg doesn’t provide much help. (You’ll have to search elsewhere to learn about Mabley’s five grandchildren, or her cause of death).

Instead, “Somethin’” relies too heavily on interviews with other comedians, from Kathy Griffin and Arsenio Hall to Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers.

Two other bio-documentaries worth noting: “Lenny Cooke,” a poignant film by directors Josh and Benny Safdie about the failed high-school basketball prodigy once compared to Lebron James, and Barbara Kopple’s slowly engrossing “Running From Crazy” an Oprah Winfrey production about Mariel Hemingway’s struggle with hereditary depression.

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Patrick Cole on philanthropy.

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