Friends, family, fans and colleagues gathered at the Chicago Theatre last night to pay tribute to the late film critic Roger Ebert, in a memorial that lasted three hours. Speakers included actors, directors, film critics, television hosts, old drinking buddies, studio executives, and grandchildren.
Even the location of the ceremony held special meaning for the occasion. As Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy explained, Ebert had, years earlier, convinced him to choose the Chicago, then a dilapidated, rat-infested shell of its former self, over other more luxurious local venues for a revival screening of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon.” “If you guys bring ‘Napoleon’ here,” Ebert told Luddy, “if we had thousands of people in Chicago coming to this theater now it would remind them what a great theater it could be.” Luddy agreed, 12,000 people came to see “Napoleon” during its Chicago engagement, and a year later the theater was declared a landmark.
Roger had helped save the theater that held his memorial tribute. So literally no one in the Chicago on Thursday would have been there without Roger Ebert, in more ways than one.
The evening, titled “Roger Ebert: A Celebration of Life,” was free and open to the public and streamed live on RogerEbert.com. It featured guests from nearly every aspect of the writer and television host’s life: from the worlds of criticism and journalism to the liberal causes he championed. There were clips of Ebert’s many appearances on TV, some famous, others obscure. The selections even included the outtakes, a viral hit on the web, of Ebert and his old partner Gene Siskel heckling each other during a promo shoot for their old show.
The guest list included John and Joan Cusack (who read a letter from the President and First Lady), directors Ava DuVernay, Julie Dash, Gregory Nava, and Andrew Davis, “At the Movies” creator Thea Flaum, Sony Pictures Classics President Michael Barker, Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen Siskel, journalist (and voice of Ebert on “Ebert Presents at the Movies”) Bill Kurtis, “Ebert & Roeper” co-host Richard Roeper, Ebert’s wife Chaz, and comedian and activist Dick Gregory, who received the night’s biggest laughs while saluting Roger with crisply timed jokes.
Just a few of the many highlights:
“Roger was always a great guy. I believe Chaz enabled him to become a great man.” — Thea Flaum
“He was a populist without prejudice.” — Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
“When Roger was around, the balcony was always open for anyone who wanted to bend his ear.” — Scott Foundas, Variety
“Sometimes his writing was better than the writing in the film… it was annoying how good of a writer he was.” — John Cusack
“We look at movies in a bolder way because of him… I have always felt that Roger was the conscience of the movie business.” – Michael Barker
“I believe all of our lives would have been so much less interesting without Roger Ebert.” — Richard Roeper
“Roger was a warrior. He believed you had to get in there and give life to new visions and new voices… so that the movies we see would look more like the country we live in. And in doing that, he changed the way America saw movies. And that changed America.” — Gregory Nava
“He lived a charmed life. A lot of things in life that were more difficult for some people came easy to him. But with that came a responsibility for carrying on lots of things that some people couldn’t take on.” — Chaz Ebert
There were other highlights that were impossible to capture in sound bytes. Ava DuVernay told a long and beautiful story about her four meetings with Roger during four different periods of her life — as a child, as a publicist, as a filmmaker, and as a friend. Facets founder Milos Stehlik spoke of Ebert’s support of “Hail Mary,” a controversial movie by Jean-Luc Godard about the Virgin Mary — a movie he gave only one and a half stars and did not like, but believed deserved a chance to be seen anyway.
Richard Roeper, who called Ebert “our George Bailey,” revealed a few behind the scenes stories of Roger and Gene — like the time Gene tricked Roger into thinking the pilot of an airplane they were both flying on was a fan — and confessed that while he loathed receiving the question “Seen any good movies lately?” from fans, Roger loved it, and always took the time to answer it sincerely. Bill Kurtis praised Ebert’s fearless, tech-savvy conversion from print to multiplatform journalist — at the age of 60, while he was fighting cancer, without his voice.
And in one of the clips of Ebert himself, he talked about how he stumbled into his lifelong profession and passion. He’d been hired to write for the Chicago Sun-Times; all he’d wanted to be since he was a boy was a newspaperman. Then the Sun-Times‘ film critic retired and the job fell in his lap. He didn’t ask for it, he didn’t even apply; they simply gave it to him. “I didn’t know I was going to be a film critic,” he said.
And yet he became one of the greatest critics, and certainly the most influential, that ever lived — possibly one part of that charmed life Chaz Ebert spoke about. But some people with luck and with gifts take them for granted. What last night’s event proved conclusively was that Ebert never did. He knew how lucky he was, and made sure he repaid the universe for all that he had received many times over. That’s why he was so generous to his fans, and so supportive to the young critics he inspired. And that’s why knowing him made us almost as lucky as he was.