Ebertfest 2019 Day 1 | Fashionably late stars shine at opening gala

Ebertfest 2019 Day 1 | Fashionably late stars shine at opening gala

CHAMPAIGN — "I'm a little giddy this evening," Chaz Ebert admitted to guests at Wednesday's opening gala for the 21st Roger Ebert's Film Festival.

"I'm giddy because I'm so happy," she explained, noting that it takes a full year to bring the event together, and it's a thrill for her to see it finally all come to fruition.

She later asked to have a couple doors opened in the University of Illinois President's House, as she said she was feeling a bit faint, having woken up that morning "with butterflies."

While she attributed her case of "jitters" partly to her enthusiasm for again playing host to the film festival her late husband founded, and partly to her excitement over the evening's scheduled movie at the Virginia Theatre, "Amazing Grace," featuring a 1972 performance by Aretha Franklin, her giddiness appeared absolutely contagious.

Especially when her fashionably tardiest but easily most popular guests arrived just as Chaz was winding up her introductory remarks.

Actress Jennifer Tilly showed up first, futilely trying to slip into a front-row seat unnoticed, but upon being called up to the podium to be recognized, threw her fellow guest actress, Gina Gershon, under the bus — blaming her for the lateness of their arrival.

"Gina said she'd be here in five minutes, but that was 20 minutes ago," Tilly told the small crowd. "I couldn't wait any more! I didn't want to miss this!"

Gershon arrived a few minutes later to a similarly enthusiastic reception, but was perhaps even more excited to spot her cousin, director Alan Elliott, among the VIP guests on hand, calling it "a nice surprise."

Elliott was present as the featured special guest for Wednesday night's showing of "Amazing Grace," which he co-directed, along with producer Terrell Whitley, using flawed footage shot by director Sidney Pollack that sat in a vault for 35 years before Elliott rescued it and overcame its sound-syncing glitch.

Gershon said she had already seen the documentary three times yet looked forward to seeing it again.

Among the kudos and shout-outs and expressions of gratitude passed around at the gala, there were a couple of minor disappointments as well — the biggest being that another much-anticipated actress scheduled as a special guest, Virginia Madsen, won't be able to attend, at least in person. As festival director Nate Kohn disclosed earlier in the day on WDWS-AM's "Penny For Your Thoughts," Madsen was held up by an extended shooting schedule for a TV series she's working on in North Carolina, but she's planning to appear as scheduled for the Q&A session after Saturday night's showing of "Sideways" — albeit via live satellite feed.

Tilly expressed regret that her and Gershon's co-star in "Bound," actor and previous Ebertfest guest Joe Pantoliano, wasn't able to join them, because "I just love Joey." And Chaz Ebert noted that Cameron Crowe, writer and director of "Almost Famous," had sent along apologies for being unable to accept an invitation to attend, though he filmed a video intro that will be shown before his 2000 film is shown on Saturday afternoon.

On the other hand, that might just be good news for Ebertfest fans — along with the word from Kohn that festival passes and tickets to all 13 films on this year's schedule (including a previously unpublicized short film on the bill, "Sebastian," slated for 10 a.m. Friday at the Virginia Theatre) are still available at the theater's box office and at the festival's website.