It’s been just over a year since famed film critic Roger Ebert passed away but his spirit remained very much alive at EbertFest, the namesake film festival he founded 16 years ago in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois. This year a stellar line up of film makers descended on the small town to honor the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, including Spike Lee and Oliver Stone both marking 25th anniversaries of their films, Do the Right Thing and Born on the Fourth of July.
At their screenings in front of sold out crowds at the historic Virginia Theatre both filmmakers noted how much Ebert had supported their films. Lee recalled the controversy that sparked the release of his incendiary film and how Ebert was a voice of reason amongst the clatter. “There was the fear that blacks would run amok in the streets,” recalled Lee. “Roger Ebert was a champion of this film from the very beginning. He was out front for Do the Right Thing from the start, and he stood up for the film when few others would.”
But it was Roger Ebert himself who was the starring attraction with the opening night film, Life Itself by documentary film maker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) who was given unprecedented access to Ebert in the last four months of his life when his declining health had him continually hospitalized (he died April 4, 2013 at age 70). The movie is based on his 2011 memoir. It will screen at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released to US cinemas through Magnolia Pictures in July.
“Roger wanted a warts and all portrayal of his life,” said wife Chaz Ebert who now presents the festival and continues to work hard to maintain the online review site he pioneered prior to his death.
While the film celebrates his 46 year career as film critic and writer for the Chicago Sun- Times, and the rise of his long running iconic thumbs up thumbs down TV movie review show where he spared with fellow critic Gene Siskel (and later Richard Roeper when Siskel passed away from brain cancer in 1999) it is also an intimate portrayal of the last few months of his life. “We were planning to show how he was still leading a very active life despite his illness (he had already lost his voice and much of his jaw after battling thyroid and salivary gland cancer) but we ended up doing most of the filming in the hospital and during his rehabilitation. We still had no idea that he would only be with us for four more months when we started shooting,” says James.
“Roger made it clear to me on several occasions that he wanted the film to be honest account of his daily travails, and of his past. He and Chaz encouraged everyone we wanted to interview to be cooperative and candid. I decided early on that, despite my admiration for him, I really wanted the film to show the flesh and blood man,” says James. “ I hope the film shows his trademark wit, good spirits and toughness.”
Watching the film at EbertFest, Chaz Ebert was touched by the outpouring of emotion to the film. “So many people loved him. He really insinuated himself in the public psyche,” she said. “I don’t think I realized how sick he was," she continued. "Our life was very normal and we were very happy. Even up to the end and his spirits were good and he was still writing every day. I was there with each surgery and each thing they had to remove. I knew his thoughts and his spirit and his bright lights and brilliance was all still there but to see it in the film is still so hard for me."
Also unveiled at the festival was a life size bronze statue of Ebert sitting amongst theatre chairs with his thumbs up. It will take its permanent place outside the Virginia Theatre later this year. It became a popular attraction at the Festival as people lined up to take photos sitting next to the iconic film reviewer. "I'm so glad people are treating this with great respect," said Chaz Ebert at the conclusion of the Festival. "Roger never wanted to be a carnival attraction, but I think people are finding this an important symbol."