At a New York sneak peek screening of the new Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself, Roger’s widow, Chaz, was overcome with emotion multiple times. She didn’t stay to see the movie, revealing that it’s still hard for her to watch, and got choked up remembering her late husband and the process of making the documentary during a post-screening Q&A.
Although Roger had revealed his casting choice several years ago, Chaz told The Hollywood Reporter Monday night that she was just discussing the possibility of Hoffman playing Ebert at Sundance, as both were there with separate films: Chaz with Life Itself and Hoffman with A Most Wanted Man.
“When we were at Sundance, I was talking to someone about that,” she said, “I didn’t see Phil at Sundance, but I was talking to someone, saying, ‘You know he’s here. I heard Roger would like [Hoffman] to play him in a movie, what do you think about that?’ We were just talking about that last week, so…”
Speaking at the Rooftop Films and Champagne Piper-Heidsieck event at New York City’s Paley Center, Chaz also noted that both she and Roger held Hoffman in high regard.
“Roger and I thought he was just terrific. We thought he was one of the best actors of any age,” she told THR. “He was just so versatile, and he was a brilliant, very smart human being.”
Chaz added of Hoffman’s death, believed to be due to a drug overdose, “It’s so, so sad, and addiction is a really, really difficult thing. I really have so much sympathy for his children and his partner and his mother, whom Roger knew and liked a lot.”
Sundance was the first time Chaz saw the completed documentary, and although it was an emotional experience, full of sobbing and laughter, she thinks that was the best way for her to experience the film in its entirety.
“I’m glad that I waited to see it at Sundance. It made it feel like Roger was there watching it with me, because I know that’s exactly what he would have done,” Chaz told THR. “He made so many discoveries at Sundance over the years that he just would’ve said, ‘Let’s just wait and see it with an audience on a big screen.’ ”
She added that the Sundance crowd was so supportive it kind of caught her off guard.
Life Itself, made during the final months of Roger’s life, provides a comprehensive look at the famous film critic, including vivid depictions of the medical difficulties that plagued him toward the end of his life.
Director Steve James said that although such raw scenes, including ones in which viewers can see right through Roger’s jaw, may be difficult to watch, the critic was still the same person on the inside.
“He was still Roger. He was still making jokes. He was still strong-willed and working and fighting the good fight, and I was just so inspired by that and touched by that and I hope the audience is too, because he’s still the man that at one time was running around the bars of Chicago and was the intrepid reporter that was battling with Gene [Siskel]. It’s still that guy,” James said.
Although Roger wanted the documentary to show his medical issues, there was a line that he and Chaz wouldn’t cross, James noted, saying that, of course, the camera wasn’t at his bedside when he died. Roger’s initial cancer diagnosis wasn’t captured on film, but Roger later told James about his condition, an exchange that’s in the movie.
At Any Price director Ramin Bahrani, who became friends with Roger and credits the critic’s early support for his career, said he thought the film offered a multidimensional portrait of the late critic.
“I think Steve managed to make a film, which I believe is what Roger wanted, which is all sides of him, not some vanity project, but something that shows the complexity of him — where his true loves were and also his flaws,” Bahrani told THR.
Life Itself was made for CNN Films and has a broadcast deal to air on the cable news network, but James told THR that a theatrical deal for the picture is “imminent,” though he can’t yet say who will be distributing the title.