Art Beat: An all-encompassing look at Ebert
Before going into a screening last week of "Life Itself" in Chicago, I thought I pretty much knew all there was to know about its subject, Roger Ebert.
After all, I'd read his memoir of the same title on which the Steve James-directed documentary is based. And I've covered Roger Ebert's Film Festival in Champaign for the past 15 years, getting to know, to some degree, Roger and his wife, Chaz.
But I discovered some new things as I watched the documentary at the Lake Street Screening Room, a private, 48-seat cinema house where Chicago film critics see movies before the rest of us do.
I don't want to reveal too many of the details because many of you will want to see the documentary yourselves. I will say I appreciated its focus on Ebert's having been a true newspaperman — from the time he was a boy growing up in Urbana when he reported, wrote, published and distributed his own neighborhood newspaper.
As a longtime newspaper person myself, I chuckled at the information that after Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame tried to lure him away from The Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert turned down that and other job offers, explaining he didn't want to have to learn a bunch of new streets.
Another piece of new-to-me information: When Ebert was editor of The Daily Illini, he stopped the presses in November 1963 after he discovered the unfortunate juxtaposition of the advertisement image of a muzzle pointing to a nearby photograph of John F. Kennedy in an article about his assassination.
The lead pressman had advised against stopping the press. Ebert insisted and won the respect of his entire staff. (Such juxtapositions tend not be noticed until after the newspaper is put to bed and later read.)
The new documentary, among other topics, covers Ebert's drinking, alcoholism and recovery; his meeting and marrying of Chaz and their love for and devotion to each other; his "frenemy" relationship with Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel; and his lengthy illness, which led to his death on April 4, 2013, at age 70.
The documentary, as reported earlier, does not shy away from showing aspects of Ebert's illness; he seemed to relish that.
Ebert, as you likely know, lost his speaking voice in 2006 as a result of complications after cancer surgery. In "Life Itself," voice actor Stephen Stanton of Los Angeles narrates parts of Ebert's memoir.
Stanton nailed Roger's speaking voice to the point where people who had worked closely with Roger for years were fooled.
Chaz Ebert said Stanton is now invited at parties to do impersonations of Roger. Stanton refuses, respecting and not wanting to make a parlor game of it.
I was invited to the Chicago screening of "Life Itself" by Roger Ebert's longtime friend Betsy Hendrick, who like others had given producers a nice sum of money to help finish the documentary.
The Champaign resident had thought her contribution would earn her one seat at a Lake Street Screening Room showing of "Life Itself."
Instead it was the entire room.
"This is almost like a little family group here," Chaz Ebert said of the audience, after the screening. She went on to introduce almost everyone.
Among them were Oprah Winfrey's chef and his partner; Laura Emrick, who was Roger's editor at The Sun-Times and who now works for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and who's seen "Life Itself" five times; UI College of Media Dean Jan Slater; and Carol Itawa, who has been personal assistant to the Eberts the past two decades.
Roger's personal nurse was there. As was one of the doctors who treated Roger. Also there: "Life Itself" producers and music composer Joshua Abrams. He came up with a jazzy score I liked.
Steve James, the director, was there too.
"It's so great to be here and have this special screening and have it in the place where Roger and Chaz spent a lot of time over the years," James said.
Indeed. I felt lucky to be there.
The evening of March 7, I went early to save a front-row seat for myself at the Hatch Trashion Show inside Lincoln Square Village in Urbana.
Right before the event started, not too many spectators were there. Suddenly, just a few minutes before show time, the place became packed, with all seats taken and loads of people standing to watch.
In couture style, young women and one man strode down a runway to disco-like music, wearing sometimes outlandish and often beautiful outfits they or others had made from such things as garbage bags, newspapers, playing cards, tassels, dryer sheets, zippers, pistachio shells, old denim and broken pieces of CDs.
Some of the makers are students of Susan Becker, an adjunct professor and fashion designer who teaches Dance 199, a University of Illinois course in which students design clothes and make them from recycled materials.
I salute those students for the way they were spending their time on "Unofficial."
Other makers and models are community members, among them Laura Weisskopf Bleill, who wore a dress made from red-and-white Target shopping bags. In true social-media style, the founder of chambanamoms.com used her smartphone to snap pictures of the audience as she paraded down the runway.
One of my favorite outfits was Yang Liu's green '20s flapper-style dress made of more than 300 green graduation tassels she had bought from The IDEA Store, which sponsored the Trashion Show as part of the Hatch Re-Use Festival, which ended Saturday.
Yang Liu aimed to make a dress that would move when she did. She succeeded. It is a stunning dress that would have fit right into Baz Luhrmann's movie adaptation of "The Great Gatsby."
Another dress that recalls the '20s was made by Valerie Sharp from playing cards. She used 48 decks but not all the cards from all the decks, instead making nice patterns with the 10 of hearts and other cards. In the bodice, she allowed an image of the queen of hearts to peek through. Her sister modeled the dress.
Vivian Robison made and modeled an incredible, floor-length Victorian-style dress made from brown paper bags.
Winning best of show was Laura Billimack, who made a long, flowing gown, suitable for the Oscars ceremony, of broken pieces of CDs pasted on a dark vintage dress. Ciara Reilly modeled the glamorous CD creation.
News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.
Fast facts: Things you ought to know about the Ebert film
1. Festival opener
"Life Itself," the new documentary about Roger Ebert directed by Steve James, will open the 16th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival on April 23 at the Virginia Theatre and the University of Illinois. James will be there in person; the 116-minute documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Many there called it a tear-jerker.
2. Based on memoir
"Life Itself" was based on Ebert's 2011 memoir of the same title. Some scenes were shot in Champaign-Urbana, including of the Virginia Theatre during Ebertfest. But the festival, a special event of the UI College of Media, is not mentioned in the movie; James said he wanted to but could not find the appropriate place for it without breaking his storyline narrative.
3. Talking heads in film
Among the talking heads in "Life Itself" are New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who calls Ebert the definitive mainstream movie critic of American arts and letters; Time magazine editor/critic Richard Corliss, who put on his 10-best list of movies of the '60s the Ebert-penned Russ Meyer "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"; and director Martin Scorsese, who says, among other things, that "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" went over his head.