19th Ebertfest receives a lovely sendoff

19th Ebertfest receives a lovely sendoff

CHAMPAIGN — The 19th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival opened Wednesday with a standing ovation for singer Jimmy Demers — well, emcee Chaz Ebert told the audience to stand before he sang "God Bless America."

The five-day event ended Sunday with a heartfelt standing ovation for Demers and his pianist brother, Donnie, after they performed Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," Donnie Demers' "Benediction" (Let the Best of You Go Free) and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

The Porter song was one of 30 or so featured in the Ebertfest closing film, "De-Lovely," the musical biopic about Porter, one of America's greatest songwriters.

On stage afterward were director/producer Irwin Winkler, with his son, Charles, who produced the 2004 movie starring Kevin Kline as the songwriter and Ashley Judd as his wife.

Ebertfest 19 featured nine features, three documentaries and a short.

The festival also hosted guests such as TV legend Norman Lear, French actress Isabelle Huppert and Hollywood directors and producers such as the Winklers and Gary Ross.

Steven Bentz, director of the Virginia Theatre, where all the festival films are screened, was amazed at the turnout for "De-Lovely" on Sunday, as a number of festival-goers, particularly those from out of town, leave before the final screening.

Attendance overall was strong, with packed houses for many of the screenings and essentially sold-out ones for "Elle," starring Huppert, and "Just Another Version of You," a documentary about Lear.

Irwin Winkler — who has directed seven films and produced 50 or so, among them "Goodfellas" and the Oscar-winning "Rocky" — said before making "De-Lovely" he had wanted to make a biopic about George and Ira Gershwin, also among America's greatest 20th century songwriters. But he could never find a story or script he liked.

"Somebody suggested Cole Porter," Winkler said. "We thought we could never afford to use the songs. The only way we could do it would be to use the songs to tell the story."

As luck would have it, the Winklers — Charles produced the movie — were given free use of the songs because the Porter estate was excited that pop stars such as Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Natalie Cole and Diana Krall would reinterpret them in the film.

Elvis Costello, who's married to Krall and wanted to sing a Porter song as well, asked the Winklers if he could. They gave him "Ain't Misbehavin'."

The Porter estate also gave the Winklers free license to tell the true story of Porter, including his affairs with men while he was married to Linda Lee Thomas, a socialite, Irwin Winkler said.

The 1946 biopic "Night and Day," starring Cary Grant as Porter and Alexis Smith as his wife, "whitewashed" Porter's life, Winkler said.

"We wanted to tell this very unconventional love story about a gay man married to a woman not interested in sex because she had been terribly abused by her first husband," he said.

Kline had been Winkler's first choice to play Porter because Winkler had directed him in the 2001 film, "Life as a House."

"He's a great actor. He's a Broadway actor. He's a terrific musician. All the piano playing is himself," the director said.

Judd was not the first choice to play Linda Porter. The Winklers had met with many actresses and were set on Michelle Pfeiffer. She was interested but it never happened, as she had moved with her family to London.

Judd's agent approached the Winklers, saying the actress wanted to meet with them about the role. "She came and she was Linda Porter," the elder Winkler said, adding that she had done extensive research. At first, Winkler was apprehensive but later was "really pleased" with her portrayal.

Both Kline and Judd received Golden Globe nominations for their work in the movie.

Winkler said he, Kline and Judd didn't take a salary, opting to be paid afterward from the profits. The movie, he said, cost $15 million to make. It earned $18.3 million worldwide.


Wait till next year
➜ Save the dates: Ebertfest 20 will be held April 18-22, 2018.

➜ Something special: Because it’s a milestone year, Chaz Ebert wants to hear suggestions from Ebertfest-goers about events leading up to or during the festival and for contests and movies to be shown. Films are typically chosen by Ebert and festival director Nate Kohn, based on ones the late Roger Ebert had wanted to show, or newer ones they thought he’d have liked.

➜ Send them in: Email suggestions to ebertfest@yahoo.com.

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