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"Roger, this is your happening, and it freaks me out!" Roger Ebert's Life Remembered In Sprawling Chicago Celebration

By Ben Kenigsberg | Indiewire April 12, 2013 at 9:23AM

Roger Ebert was remembered as a groundbreaking film critic, champion of independent cinema, dedicated journalist, internet pioneer, man of letters, public face of disability, and devoted husband and grandfather at a nearly three-hour memorial tribute in Chicago that included cameos by everyone from John and Joan Cusack (reading a message from Barack and Michelle Obama) to the proprietor of the city's Old Town Ale House.
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Roger Ebert

More than one speaker praised Ebert's devotion to free speech and political voice. Former Playboy CEO (and onetime Boston Phoenix critic) Christie Hefner called him "an optimist about life and politics." Milos Stehlik, director of Chicago's cinema-and-video juggernaut Facets Multimedia, shared Ebert's 1986 review of Jean-Luc Godard’s "Hail Mary," which the theater showed in spite of protests and even a bomb scare. Ebert gave the movie 1.5 stars, yet wrote: "It is not a good film, but I submit that it is not a sacrilegious one." 

"Roger didn’t like 'Hail Mary,'" Stehlik said, "but he defended our right to show it." Recalling an evening watching Ebert talk about national issues with Michael Moore, Ebert's co-host Richard Roeper remembered his sparring partner as a consummate storyteller. Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive") compared him to Mark Twain and Carl Sandburg.

The political realm appeared in a different way when Joan Cusack, standing alongside her brother John, read a letter from the President and First Lady, who called Ebert "a man with remarkable tenacity and a contagious zest for life." Afterward, John recalled anxiety about meeting Ebert during a press tour for "The Sure Thing," and said that studios would always tell him Ebert was an important interview ("which in Hollywood," he added, "I think means, 'We can't buy this one'").

Others recalled Ebert helping them through alcoholism and, since losing his voice in 2006, providing a very public example of the notion that a disability doesn’t require slowing down. Some speakers simply shared old stories. Ale-house owner Bruce Elliott relayed a riotous tale of a bar fight with Ebert that ensued, in a roundabout way, after Elliott complimented a woman's décolletage.

Livened with vintage clips from "Siskel & Ebert," "The Tonight Show," "The Critic," and even YouTube-spread outtakes from the reviewing duo's long-running series, the evening made for a more celebratory counterpart to Monday's funeral mass. Both events were open to the public. Last night's standing ovations were reserved for Chaz, who spoke, pausing at length, toward the evening's end. "I don’t know what star planet he came from," she said. "Or where he’s going now."

More than one speaker mentioned Ebert’s 2011 Salon essay "I do not fear death," in which he wrote, "After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many."

Even an epic tribute couldn’t cover them all.


This article is related to: Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert (1942-2013), Steve James, Scott Foundas, Jean-Luc Godard