Fans, friends remember Roger Ebert at Chicago Theatre tribute
BY MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org April 11, 2013 6:48PM
Updated: May 13, 2013 6:49AM
Fans, friends and several big-name stars paid tribute to the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert on Thursday night at the Chicago Theatre.
One of the many admirers called him “the poet of the people.”
The internationally renowned columnist, blogger, tweeter and television personality — whom the New York Times recently dubbed “a critic for the common man” — died April 4 at 70 after battling cancer for several years. His funeral was held Monday at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral.
Unlike the sometimes tearful and often profound cathedral proceedings, the Chicago Theatre event was a much lighter affair with plenty of laughter.
Footage of Ebert and his late TV partner Gene Siskel garnered especially big guffaws, particularly their bickering at each other during outtakes:
Roger: “Sound a little excited, Gene.”
Gene: “Sound less excited, Roger.”
Roger: “I was stunned by the picture. I was stunned that anyone would make this picture.”
Gene: “Why don’t you read both parts?”
Roger: “I’d like to.”
The tribute began with a video of the film critic narrating his life, starting in Downstate Urbana. He saw Humphrey Bogart in the “Maltese Falcon” for the first time and became aware of the movies “as something more than simply entertainment, more than simply escapism.”
Ebert’s wife, Chaz, took the stage to clapping and whistling.
“Roger, that ovation was for you,” she said.
“I just want to thank you for coming tonight to help celebrate the life of my husband, my love, the film critic, the humanitarian, the journalist, the father, the grandfather, the friend,” she said. “But I have to open borrowing words from a screenplay he wrote, ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’: ‘Roger, this is your happening, and it’s freaking me out.’ ”
After a couple of rollicking tunes by gospel soloists and a top-notch choir, Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, spoke lovingly of Ebert and his often bumpy stint with Siskel. “Gene and Roger sat as far away from each other as possible,” she said. “And they would shout insults at each other when the other left the room.
“They didn’t like each other. But by the time Roger married Chaz, things began to change. Gene was thrilled that Roger had an epic romance off the screen,” she said.
Sun-Times columnist and Roger’s partner in film criticism Richard Roeper told a story about how someone once mistook Roger for actor Buddy Hackett.
“How do you tell a story about the best storyteller you ever met, and that was Roger?” Roeper said.
“He always thought of himself as a newspaperman first, as a reporter,” he said. “He was covering the movies as a beat.”
Roeper said Roger would wave away fans on the red carpet because he was on deadline.
And at film festivals, “He was a rock star. It was impossible to walk down the street with him because he was stopped every step of the way.”
Roeper also told about the time Michael Moore and Roger Ebert debated politics and the menu at a restaurant. “I was smart enough to stay quiet and soak it all in,” he said. “Michael Moore leaned back and said, ‘Holy - - - -! You’re more liberal than I am.”
One of the most heartfelt speeches of the evening came from film publicist and filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who praised Roger’s incredible support of her first narrative feature film “I Will Follow,” released in 2011.
“He made people think about my work who saw me as invisible until then,” she said.
Indie filmmaker Gregory Nava spoke about his close friend: “He changed what a critic was. . . . Roger was a warrior. He believed you had to get in there and give life to new visions, new voices, that reflected all the points of view of our great nation so that the movies we see would look more like the country we live in. And in doing that, he changed that way that America saw movies and that changed America. . . . The world of movies has lost its heart.”
Actors John Cusack and his sister Joan read a letter of condolence and tribute from President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.
John Cusack said of Roger: “He was always supportive of artists and he always gave you a fair shake. . . . He was a newspaperman. The guy was the Chicago Sun-Times, and he always reeked of integrity when he talked to you. The publicists would say, ‘This is an important interview!’ ”
Thea Flaum, creator of Siskel and Ebert’s show, “At the Movies,” said: “It was highly unlikely that two guys from Chicago were going to become nationally known as film critics on PBS. PBS? . . . I promised them that one day, our show would become the most-watched show on public television, and it was.”
Roger used to arrive at her house on Sunday evenings, TelePrompTer copy in hand, to go over his script.
Roger grumbled about her coaching only once, saying: “You know, Thea, I do have a Pulitzer Prize.”
Activist and comic Dick Gregory also spoke, followed by former head of Playboy Enterprises Christie Hefner.
Ebert’s fellow film critics spoke as well.
“There are only a couple of things that Roger Ebert prized more than getting a shoutout by Mike Myers — going to film festivals,” said Daily Herald film critic Dann Gire.
“On behalf of all the critics of the Chicago Film Critics Association,” Gire dedicated the first Chicago Film Critics Festival — taking place soon in Rosemont — to Ebert.
Before the event began, Ebert’s close friend, the movie director Andrew Davis, spoke about his longtime pal.
“It was an amazing thing to see his his career blossom,” he said. “And he was such an amazing human being as an intellect, a wit and someone who really stood up for the little guy and really had a sense of right and wrong. That was what was so unique about his work: He had a human perspective that most critics don’t have.”
Andrew Walker, a fan from Oak Park, said: “Roger was the gateway to an entire world of movies that I never would have encountered if not for him. So many of the critics you see today — there’s a snarkiness and a meanness. With Ebert, you always got the sense that he was a warm, genuine guy.”
Another fan recalled Ebert’s thumbs-down review of Bill Cosby’s movie “Leonard Part 6.” But he went to the theater anyway and was sorely disappointed. What did he learn from that? Should have listened to Roger.