CHAMPAIGN – Roger Ebert, whose speaking voice has been disabled due to a tracheostomy, finally spoke to his audience Saturday at his Overlooked Film Festival at the Virginia Theatre.
"Good morning, I'm not HAL 9000 developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana," he said via a voice synthesizer. "I am the computer voice of Roger Ebert. This computer has been programmed to speak my words."
UI President Joseph White had encouraged Ebert to use the software, which was loaned by the UI's Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services. Ebert said, via the computer, that the UI has been a leader in the area of services for the disabled and that he was a student at the UI in 1963 when he traveled to Africa with disabled students and others who used wheelchairs to get around campus. They included Tom Jones.
Ebert also said, before "Holes" was shown, that "Andrew is an old friend of mine, and I've loved 'Holes' ever since I first saw it."
Andrew Davis, director of "Holes" and also a UI alumnus, then came onstage and said, "It's been 39 years since I've been on campus. I used to go to parties with Roger and get drunk." Davis also said Ebert had reviewed his first film, "Stony Island," when the critic worked for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News.
"It's wonderful to be back in such a vibrant, exciting town," Davis said.
Ebert made it through the first full day of his ninth annual festival on Thursday, from morning interviews with CNN to the last film of the day, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer." On Friday, he saw the first film, "Sadie Thompson," the 1927 classic starring Gloria Swanson, accompanied by a score composed by Joseph Turrin and performed by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony.
After that, Chaz Ebert said, she made her husband return to his hotel room to rest.
"Tonight, the La-Z-Boy chair will be empty," she told the Ebertfest audience on Friday night. "I finally had to put my foot down and say he needs a little rest. Yesterday, I could not believe he did an interview with CNN early in the morning and went into the night."
She publicly thanked festival guests Paul Cox, Werner Herzog, Scott Wilson and his wife, Heavenly, and David Bordwell and Rudi Dolezal, who all kept in touch with her or visited her husband during his recovery.
"These guys are great filmmakers, but you also want people who are great human beings. They care, and they really care."