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Hollywood and independent filmmakers, philanthropists and industry magnates, fellow critics and, yes, movie stars came together this evening in Chicago to pay tribute to the life of legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who passed away April 4 at the age of 70. The event was live-streamed on the internet via WGN and RogerEbert.com.
One of the most heartfelt remembrances came from filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who had experienced Ebert's impact both in her career as film director as well as her career as a film publicist. The first time came when she was but a young girl and she took a trip to the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles to watch the stars go inside for the Academy Awards rehearsal. She was able grab a photo with Ebert, and he later wrote a blog post about it, just after the release of her first film, "I Will Follow." The film was based on her relationship with her late aunt, her brought her to the Shrine all those years before.
"He Tweeted 17 times," DuVernay said with awe of his support for the film. "He Tweeted the schedule. He Tweeted links. He Tweeted pictures. I mean, when it went to VOD, he put it in the daily schedule. And the quote we put on the poster, it was everywhere. It was, 'One of the best films I've seen about the loss of a loved one.' He made people think about my work who had seen me as invisible up until that point."
DuVernay praised Ebert's penchant for championing other small films as well, something she was able to see first hand in her work as a publicist. On tiny movies with little to no budget, particularly for field press agents, she was tasked with calling journalists all around the country, including Ebert.
"My path crossed with Roger Ebert's four distinct times in my life, and they made a difference," DuVernay said. "I hope to cross paths with him again."
Sony Pictures Classics honcho Michael Barker further noted how Ebert's impact on filmmakers. "Ask Ang Lee," he said. "Ask Kathryn Bigelow. Ask Erroll Morris, who will tell you Roger handed him his career. Ask Spike Lee, who will tell you Roger put him in the big leagues with his review of 'Do the Right Thing.' We simply would not know films like 'Pan's Labyrinth,' 'Hoop Dreams' and 'Roger & Me' the way we know if it weren't for Roger Ebert. This is fact."
Barker also recounted a story about "A Separation" director Asghar Farhadi receiving an invitation to attend Eberfest a few months after he won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for the film. It was hugely important to the filmmaker.
"We look at movies in a bolder way because of him," Barker said. "Civil rights, social justice and politics gained a new clear-eyed dimension because of him."
Indeed, regarding social issues, plenty was made of Ebert's liberalism and political activism. "Thank you, my brother, for being a turtle," comedian and social activist Dick Gregory said. "As you know, a turtle is hard on the outside, soft on the inside, and isn't afraid to stick your neck out."
When Ebert engaged with you, "he would look you in the eye," Barker said. "He would understand what was special about you, pull it out of you and all of a sudden, you possessed the gift of self-respect…No public figure has ever meant more to me...I have always felt that Roger was the conscience of the movie business."
Sibling actors John and Joan Cusack, fellow Chicagoans, were on hand to read a letter from the White House. John quipped about landing an interview with Ebert that "publicists would always say, 'This is a big interview.' I think in Hollywood that means, 'We can't buy this one.'"
Telluride Film Festival co-director Tom Luddy spotlighted Ebert's heralding of the American documentary film movement. "No critic has called as much attention to a very rich renaissance in documentary filmmaking of the last 20 years, particularly in this country," Luddy said. He recalled when Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" played Telluride in 1989 that "by the end of the festival we had to have seven extra screenings because Roger would stop everyone up and down the street and make them go." Moore has noted in no uncertain terms that he would have no career were it not for Roger Ebert.
Also on hand was Richard Roeper, who took over for Gene Siskel after the critics' death on his and Ebert's nationally syndicated film review show, which was re-titled "At the Movies." He spoke of Ebert's love of telling stories (which perhaps gets at his love of watching them unfold on the big screen). "How do you tell a story about the best storyteller you've ever met," he asked. "That was Roger. We've heard so much about his influence but those of you who have known him best and the longest know that he thought of himself as a newspaper man first. Covering movies was his beat."
Indeed, Roeper told of being in press situations with fellow journalists who would, naturally, be in awe of Ebert. They would gawk and perhaps ask for an autograph. "He would politely wave them away and say, 'I'm on deadline, too, right now,'" Roeper said. "He was a rock star."
Because of Ebert's love of Gospel music, the evening featured musical performances by Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago as well as the Grammy Award-winning Charles Jenkins and Fellowship Chicago Choir.
Others in attendance included filmmakers Andrew Davis and Gregory Nava, "Siskel & Ebert" producer Thea Flaum and many more. The event took place at the Chicago Theatre, where Ebert attended film screenings for years, right there in the back row, perched in the aisle seat, doing what he loved.
Ebert will be honored next week at the 15th annual Ebertfest. He'll also be honored posthumously with the Sundance Vanguard Leadership Award, to be presented by Robert Redford on June 5.