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Spike Lee, Oliver Stone come to Ebertfest as ‘a tribute to Roger’

Roger Chaz Ebert speak crowd Ebertfest 2012. |  ThompsMcClellan photo

Roger and Chaz Ebert speak to the crowd at Ebertfest in 2012. | Thompson McClellan photo

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When: Wednesday through Sunday

Where: Virginia Theatre, 201 W. Park Ave., Champaign

Tickets: $14 ($12 for students/seniors; passes sold out)

Info: (217) 356-9063;

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Updated: June 23, 2014 4:06PM

Ebertfest, the annual film festival founded by Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, has presented many marquee attractions over its 16-year run: Oscar-winning actors Tilda Swinton (twice), Christine Lahti and Cliff Robertson (who piloted his own plane to the festival); cinematographer-director Haskell Wexler (twice); directors Ang Lee, Werner Herzog (twice), Norman Jewison, Neil LaBute, Richard Linklater (twice), Errol Morris, Bob Rafelson, John Sayles, Paul Schrader and Bertrand Tavenier.

In one of his last public appearances before his death, golden-era icon Donald O’Connor sprang out of his wheelchair and bounded onto the stage as if he were performing a routine from his landmark musical “Singin’ in the Rain.”

This year, the festival, which begins Wednesday and runs through Sunday at the historic Virginia Theatre in Champaign, promises to top all of that with appearances by two cinema giants, Spike Lee and Oliver Stone. Each director will attend Ebertfest with films marking their 25th anniversaries: “Do the Right Thing” (which brought Lee an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay) and “Born on the Fourth of July” (for which Stone won his second best-director Oscar).

Of course, the festival’s biggest “star,” its namesake, will be there in spirit. This year marks the second edition without Ebert, who died just days before last year’s event.

His legacy is what attracts such high-powered talent to the festival, says Chaz Ebert, Roger’s wife, longtime business partner, and Ebertfest executive producer and host. “That Oliver and Spike will be here is a tribute to Roger and how well he was thought of in the film industry,” she said of Ebertfest, which is co-produced by the College of Media of the University of Illinois, Roger’s alma mater. “I think people can see how we’re trying to maintain his legacy and the high standards we’ve established for the festival. Their presence speaks to that.”

A champion of Lee and Stone throughout their careers, Ebert hailed Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” as “a call for racial empathy” and described Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” as an apologia for the Vietnam War and its aftermath. “Both movies meant a lot to him,” she said. “They’re both directors Roger had a lot of respect for.”

In a bittersweet turn, Roger himself will take centerstage for the opening-night “Life Itself,” directed by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”). Based on the film critic’s 2011 memoir, the documentary follows Ebert over the last four months of his life. After its debut at Sundance in January, “Life Itself” was picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures and will receive a theatrical release this summer. “Steve did a magical job,” Chaz Ebert said. “I know Roger would approve of the film. He really wanted Steve to show the man, not the icon, and Steve does that so beautifully.”

Also booked for this year’s event are the Alloy Orchestra, performing its original score for the silent “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924) starring Lon Chaney; festival favorite Ramin Bahrani with his indie drama “Goodbye Solo” (2008), and actor-comedian Patton Oswalt with “Young Adult” (2012). Oswalt once wrote of Ebert: “As far as my tastes in cinema go, it was the yearly editions of Roger’s Movie Home Companion, all through the ’80s, which led me upwards towards Ozu and Welles, downwards to Sybil Danning in ‘The Howling, Part II’ and sideways to ‘Infra-Man.’ ” He even quoted the last line of Ebert’s review: “When they stop making movies like ‘Infra-Man’, a little light will go out of the world.’ ”

Festival director Nate Kohn, a professor at the University of Georgia, and Chaz Ebert program the event with Roger’s overall mission in mind. “It was important to Roger to represent international cinema and also women and minority filmmakers,” she said. This year, the festival will showcase three female directors: Ann Hui of “A Simple Life” (2011), Haifaa Al-Mansour for “Wadjda” (2012) and Lily Keber of the documentary “Bayou Maharajah” (2013).

In another personal note, Chaz Ebert and Kohn added “Capote” (2005) to the lineup after Philip Seymour Hoffman, a best-actor Oscar winner for this film, after he died in February. “We thought it was important to have Philip Seymour Hoffman represented,” she said. “Roger thought that if anyone should ever portray him in a film, he wanted it to be Hoffman. And Roger really loved his performance as Capote. He said it seemed like Hoffman was inhabiting the role, not just imitating [Capote].”

Passes have sold out, but single tickets remain for select titles. For details and a full schedule, go to

“Roger and I used to have a running joke,” Chaz Ebert said. “On the ride back home to Chicago, we’d say to each other, ‘This was the best festival ever.’ And this year, I’m sure Roger would say, ‘Can you believe this lineup?’ I can see him saying it and watching the joy on his face. He would be ecstatic.”

Laura Emerick, former arts editor
of the Sun-Times, is the digital
content editor for the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra.

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