The Pulitzer Prize-winning Ebert became famous for the long-running “At the Movies” program with Gene Siskel, where the two Chicago-based reviewers popularized their “two thumbs up” style of approach to film criticism as they butted heads over the latest releases. He died last year at the age of 70 after a lengthy struggle with cancer.
The film is based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name and chronicles his impact on major filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Michael Moore, his alcohol addiction, his love affair with his wife, Chaz Ebert, and the illness that cost him much of his jaw and left him unable to speak or eat solid foods in his final years.
The way he dealt with his illness was central to the film and his legacy, guests at the premiere said.
“He embraced life so much and part of that embrace was embracing death because death is a part of life,” said Chaz Ebert. “In our society we tend to turn away from things like illness and death and Roger was the one who said, ‘This is what illness looks like. Look at me. This is what someone who’s dying looks like.’ And he still found joy in that.”
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“The day he died he had a big smile on his face,” she added. “What more can you ask for?”
The New York premiere was hosted at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and included an afterparty at Lincoln Ristorante. It attracted a crowd of film stars and directors such as James Brolin, Denis Leary, J.C. Chandor, Jonathan Demme, Danny Strong and Michael Moore, many of whom had earned both positive and negative notices from the late critic.
“Life Itself” director Steve James said he was initially surprised that Ebert welcomed him and his cameras into his hospital room and physical therapy sessions, until he thought about the things that the critic valued in the films he championed.
“It’s extremely unusual for someone of a certain stature or fame to be that open,” said James. “But I was not surprised in the sense that Roger prized that kind of intimacy and honesty in documentaries. When he made a decision to be a part of this, I think he thought, ‘If that’s what I prized as a critic then I need to be that way as a subject.”
Though Ebert could no longer speak in his later years, he didn’t lose his voice. He became a prolific blogger, extending his range of topics beyond movies into politics, religion and his own, successful fight to stop drinking.
His impact on criticism remains unrivaled, actors and directors who flocked to the Gotham screening argued. His personal humility and accessibility informed his writing style, they said.
“You don’t realize how valuable someone like that is to the industry until they’re gone,” said director Morgan Spurlock. “To have a voice like his, someone who is so passionate and so consistent and so strong and broke through so much of the clutter that was out there, you realized, wow, he was someone who planted a flag and stood by it and really made a difference.”
“He had a kind of criticism that reached out to the public that actually goes and sees movies,” said Bob Balaban. “Not that it was unintelligent. It just wasn’t esoteric. It was understandable to everybody and smart.”
Ebert could be tough on films that failed to meet his high standards, but he was generous with helping friends in need. Director James Toback said that Ebert helped convince him to stop drinking by urging him to go along to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“He said, ‘You have too much talent and even though you’re handling it now, you won’t be able to for too long a time,'” said Toback.
“He was a decent, really great guy and tremendously courageous, which also separated him not only from other film critics, but from 99.9% of humanity,” added Toback.
Roger Ebert died before he got to see the finished film of “Life Itself,” but Chaz Ebert said she thought he would have been pleased with the results.
“Usually one thumb was reserved for him and one thumb was reserved for Gene Siskel or another critic,” she said. “I think Roger would have given it two thumbs up all by himself.”