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This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Chaz Ebert is waiting until the Sundance premiere of Life Itself — the documentary about her late husband, Roger Ebert — to watch the film in its entirety. Surrounded by her daughter, granddaughter and friends, she’ll sit in a dark theater Jan. 19 and watch his life unfold at one of the festivals he loved most.
“It seems like a Roger thing to do,” she says. “I want to experience this like we experienced other discoveries we had at Sundance over the years.”
Based on Roger’s 2011 memoir and directed by Hoop Dreams‘ Steve James, the film traces the outspoken film critic’s professional and personal journey from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at the Chicago Sun-Times to his rise as a beloved TV movie reviewer alongside Gene Siskel and, ultimately, to his 11-year battle with thyroid cancer, which ended in April when he died at age 70.
Typical of Ebert, even in death, his Life Itself will not be a normal Sundance screening. Because it was partly financed by a crowdfunding Web campaign — Indiegogo.com raised $150,000 on top of the reported $1 million budget — the film’s backers will be given private access to a virtual screening so that they can stream the film online at home as it unspools during its world premiere in Park City. “Roger was an early adopter of technological advances,” says Chaz. “But it was never technology just for technology’s sake — it was technology in order to reach out and touch as many people as possible.”
Ebert touched people, all right, particularly at Sundance, where he’d been an enthusiastic presence almost from the festival’s start. “One of the things that always struck me is that film critics try to be very incognito, but Roger was famous, famous, famous,” says James, who spent four months shooting Ebert for Life Itself in late 2012 and early 2013, even getting access to intimate medical procedures (Ebert eventually lost most of his lower jaw to cancer). “He would be at Sundance, and he didn’t have a handler. It was like he was a fan, like somebody going to the movies because he liked movies. He didn’t get ushered to the front of the lines. He wanted to be like any other moviegoer.”
Chaz, 61, is still learning how to get through the day without Roger. “At the nine-month mark, things are pretty raw for me,” she admits. A widowed friend recently told her it gets more difficult, not less, at the one-year mark. “The first few months everything is so new and it’s overwhelming, but the longer you’re away from the person you love, the more difficult it becomes.”
To keep busy, Chaz, who has a law degree but no longer practices, has devoted herself to maintaining Roger’s online empire. Before he died, the critic turned over control of RogerEbert.com to Chaz and gave her the passwords for his Twitter (820,000 followers) and Facebook (117,000 likes) accounts. “He said, ‘You must communicate with people — it’s very important.’ ” She has stayed in touch with many in the industry, including Howard Stern, Harvey Weinstein, Mark Cuban and Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, all of whom she says were very kind to Roger during his illness. She’s also been fielding scores of pitches for projects from suitors lured to the Ebert brand (he was reportedly worth $9 million when he died, a chunk of it from a jackpot sale of Google stock). She has been approached about a TV show based on Roger’s The Great Movies book series as well as an animation series, a movie trivia game, even a musical based on Ebert’s often tense partnership with Siskel.
Someday, she says, she may end up getting a house in L.A. to deal with the business of being Mrs. Ebert. But not yet. For now, she’s sticking close to the home she made with her husband in Chicago. “I’m not making a lot of plans for far off in the future,” she says. “I’m just trying to put together a path, day by day, month by month, year by year. I’m not just running the business but also trying to be a mother and grandmother.” “You know,” she says, sighing deeply, “I’ve never been a widow before.”
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