Remembering Roger Ebert: 'Life Itself's Chaz Ebert Discusses Intimate Memories of Her Late Husband
Film critics, like journalists, pride themselves on being fair. While our minds are tapped for critical thinking and opinion, we employ the same two-sided ethos utilized in breaking news stories: Gather all the facts, present each side of the equation, and analyze. Yet every once in a while, we abandon our rule book and promote or trash a film based on our personal interests or vendettas. Perhaps we can't stand the certain twang of an actor's delivery, or an ex-significant other loved a director we now hate on principle. It's not ethical, but it happens. 2014's documentary about the extraordinary life of film critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, is my exception.
Don't misunderstand, the film is a beautiful and widely-acclaimed representation of successful non-fiction narration with a compelling subject. Documentary director Steve James did a heartbreaking and phenomenal job guiding the film. But I had tears in my eyes before the opening credits had finished rolling. Having read Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times film reviews every Friday morning since I was eight years old, he was the primary factor in my early perseverance in the world of film criticism.
So it was a supreme honor when I had the opportunity to speak with Ebert's wife, Chaz, about the documentary, her life with Roger, and falling in love with the man who influenced millions of Americans to go to the movies.
"At the time I met Roger I had just broken up with a man I was almost engaged to, and I don't think I've ever said that to anyone," Chaz told Bustle. "I wasn't looking for anyone. I was happily single, I had been divorced for a number of years and I had a very full life — I was practicing law, I had my son and my daughter, I had great friends, a full life."
As the documentary details, Ebert saw Chaz when he was dining out with friend Eppie Lederer, known by most as advice columnist Ann Landers, and was instantly smitten.
"He came into my life sort of unexpected. Even that very first meeting when Ann Landers brought him to the table to introduce him to me, he aknowledged everyone at the table, then he held the table. He was regailing us with all these stories, he was such a great storyteller. I didn't expect all that just seeing him on TV," she said, adding: "He disarmed me."
Chaz spoke of Roger's cordialness: opening doors, pulling out chairs and brining her flowers for their date at the opera. "I didn't expect him to be a romantic and he was."
At the time of their wedding, Ebert was a middle-aged man who had already experienced medical hardship. "He made sure I knew he had a bout with cancer, but he said it was one in the medical books. It was a rare cancer that was so slow growing that they didn't know if it would ever return. We really didn't think it would return."
And for many years, it didn't. The couple lived their lives happily going on trips with Chaz's children and grandchildren, writing letters to one another and discussing cosmology. They formed memories traveling to Cannes Film Festival year after year, exploring the various cultures of the world when Roger had a break from filming Sneak Previews and At the Movies with fellow critic Gene Siskel. They even discussed and disagreed over pictures (He hated The Clockwork Orange, which she loved, and he adored Joe Vs. The Volcano, a film it took Chaz many viewings to appreciate).
But then, years later, the cancer prevailed, taking with it Roger's ability to speak, eat foods that weren't delivered through a tube, and even walk. This stage of Ebert's life, near the end of his professional career, delivered perhaps his most powerful work. Left only with the ability to communicate through his computer, words became more valuable than ever. His immense wit, heart, and criticism did not falter, it grew. And through his illness, somehow — inexplicably — his spirit did not waiver.
"The week or two before he passed away, he was going to this other world," Chaz said. "He would come back and write: 'This world is an illusion. It's an elaborate hoax. There's this place of great vastness where the past, present, and future exist simultaneously.' He said, 'I was seeking the divine from the outside, I forgot about the divinity within.' It made me cry," she explained.
"I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask him more. What is this world that you're seeing, what's different about here? He would talk about the oneness, and pure love. Things that were so beautiful."
Pure love seems to be what Ebert emoted most: Before Roger began his career as a film critic, he used daily columns to comment on the current social issues of the time. When four young girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, 21-year-old Roger penned one of the most beautiful pieces he would ever write. But for Chaz, the notion of marrying a non-Black man was a foreign one.
"I had lived through the era of the civil rights movements. I was a lawyer and I knew that it was only in 1967 that the supreme court said it was OK for people of different races to get married. In my lifetime, it would have been illegal for Roger and I to get married. Living through that time period, living through discrimination, it wasn't easy thinking about marrying someone of a different race," she said. "But my mother was like 'Honey, listen to your heart, it doesn't matter what people are going to say. This is a good man. You love him, he loves you. Case closed.'"
Chaz saw the same qualities in Ebert we all did: Compassion, kindness, a sharp sense of wit and humor and an ability to write for the layman while educating the scholar. Sitting through a screening of Life Itself was a challenge. Here was a role model who passed away under tragic circumstances, now an open book for public consumption. His personal life, vices and triumphs exposed for us to celebrate together.
But it didn't make his passing any less sad. At the end of the screening, as I sat weeping in the dark theatre, surrounded by little more than my morbid thoughts about death, loss, uncertainty and loneliness, I found a sudden and complete solace in the realization that I was wrapped in Ebert's arms. He held me, by the red velvet of my cushioned seat, he embraced me. By the soft light of the projector that illuminates hovering dust particles and the screen in front of me, he offered a raised eyebrow and the onset of a smile. I was surrounded by a dozen or so film critics, his people — my people — sitting in a random theatre in Beverly Hills as we collectively mourned and celebrated a man who taught us how to love film.
Chaz speaks for all of us when she said: "Knowing that he's passed away, I'm so happy that I have this gift, the ability to spend two hours with him on film."
Life Itself opens in select theatres, on demand and on iTunes July 4.