CHICAGO — The diversity of tributes to the late Chicago film critic Roger Ebert at the Chicago Theatre testified to his diverse impact on cinema and beyond. Ebert, film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, died April 4. The three-hour public memorial, produced by Captivate Marketing Group, followed Monday’s funeral mass at Holy Name Cathedral.
“Roger Ebert: A Celebration of Life” gathered independent filmmakers Gregory Nava (El Norte) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Chicago-born director Andrew Davis, Evanston natives John and Joan Cusack, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, comic Dick Gregory, THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy, a disability advocate, an old drinking buddy and two gospel choirs.
Ebert got credit for helping preserve the evening’s venue: “What is perhaps the most magnificent theater in the world,” as Billboard saluted the ornate movie palace built in 1921 by Balaban & Katz. Tom Luddy — co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival, where Ebert was a regular — said the critic urged him to book the 1980 roadshow restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) in the Chicago Theatre, threatened at the time with demolition. Showcasing its charms, claimed Luddy, catalyzed its landmark preservation.
In 2005, Mayor Richard Daley declared a Roger Ebert Day and dedicated a metal medallion in his honor in the sidewalk under the marquee, a month after Ebert got a star in Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I always felt he was the conscience of the movie industry,” ventured Barker. Observed Cusack, sharing the stage with his sister Joan: “He reeked of integrity.” The actor related how studios would prep him for an Ebert interview. Publicists for junkets would say: “This one is important.” To him that meant: “We can’t buy this one.”
“Roger Ebert is probably the most influential film critic in the world,” claimed Barker, lauding him as “a poet of the people.” McCarthy’s alliterative plaudit was “a populist without prejudice.” At age 16, McCarthy — an Evanston student — treasured seeing his own name in print when Ebert published his letters about film.
Nava recalled how his friend would approach an unknown filmmaker after a screening and state: “Hello, my name is Roger Ebert and I loved your movie,” adding, “You could fill this theater with filmmakers who had this same experience.” Honoring Ebert as an advocate of African-American independents, Dash always paired him in her remembrance with Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune film critic on the various versions of their television show. “They allowed space for black films to dream.”
The only film sampled was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), which Ebert wrote for his friend Russ Meyer. In the groovy party scene after the opening credits, a character marvels: “This is my happening — and it’s freaking me out!” Dann Gire, film critic from the suburban Daily Herald, recalled the local press screening for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), where that line was reprised. In a big voice, Ebert flagged the lifting of dialogue. Gire led the crowd, estimated at 2,600, to recite it together.
Very brief excerpts from Ebert’s broadcast reviews were projected on three screens. Other clips came from interviews, talk-show appearances and his 1992 wedding video. His prose was less evident, though Davis read from Ebert’s review of The Fugitive, shot in Chicago. Davis likened the Pulitzer winner to Chicago writers Mike Royko, Studs Terkel and Carl Sandberg, who once wrote film reviews for the Chicago Daily News.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper, who contributed reviews when Ebert was hospitalized, asked: “How do you tell a story about the best storyteller you ever met?” He told one about Ebert, before losing his ability to speak from cancer, making a highly controversial point to Michael Moore. “Holy shit, you’re more liberal than I am!” exclaimed the documentary director of Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine.
Gregory made jokes not obviously in sync with other sentiments. One at the expense of his wife of 54 years involved the rape of “white women” and million-dollar gifts of jewelry. He also quipped about the time CNN asked him if “we” were doing enough to find Osama bin Laden. “ ‘We?’ I ain’t looking for him. I’m still trying to find out who my daddy is.” Comic Chris Tucker was in the audience. His April 12 show at the Chicago Theatre is sold out. Also attending was Scott Wilson from AMC’s The Walking Dead and indie filmmakers Eric Byler and Annabel Park.
Chicago speakers onstage included Marlene Iglitzen Siskel, wife of the late Gene Siskel; Milos Stehlik, founder of Facets Cinematheque; Josh Golden, co-founder of Ebert Digital; and Marca Bristo, founder of Access Living. In the audience was local writer and activist Mike Erwin, whose Smart Ass Cripple blog Ebert had touted via Twitter.
“For me, a movie is like a machine that generates empathy,” theorized Ebert in one clip. In another, Oprah Winfrey quoted a phone call from Ebert’s wife, Chaz Ebert: “I refuse to let him die.” At the end of the evening, Chaz came onstage with her son, daughter and three grandchildren and shared: “When the cancer returned, this time he said, ‘I’m tired, you must let me go.’ “
Afterward, she greeted the Soul Children of Chicago, who opened the tribute with “As” and “Lift Him Up.” “Let’s get that energy, I want to get that energy,” she enthused as she shook nearly every hand. “Let it flow,” urged choir founder and director Walt Whitman. “Let the love flow.”