For years, Chaz Ebert stayed away from the spotlight while her husband, film critic Roger Ebert, was beamed onto the nation’s TV screens. It wasn’t until his illness robbed him of his speaking voice that she made herself more known. Since his death last spring, she has been instrumental in keeping his legacy alive, be that lording over rogerebert.com — which still swells with reviews and articles — and doing press for “Life Itself,” the documentary about his life. Made by Steve James, whose “Hoop Dreams” was championed by Ebert 20 years ago, it also captures the last four months before his sudden passing.
There are so many stories about Roger writing back to his fans.
My question is: how many Rogers were there? He wrote more reviews than anyone, he wrote all these books, he was teaching at the University of Chicago for 30 years. He was married and he had grandchildren. How many Rogers were there and how did he write back to all those readers? I don’t know and I lived with him for 24 years.
He was also at first reluctant to have this film made.
He truly was a modest man. He was thinking, “How would you make a movie about me?” He was used to being on the other side of the camera. He was on TV, but that was a different medium — and he was doing his job.
Steve James wasn’t a close friend, despite the “Hoop Dreams” rave, correct?
When we would see Steve at an event, we would say, “Hello, how are you?” And he would say, “Hello,” and scurry away. And we would think, “What?” He thought there was this wall that was impenetrable.
He was so strong, sticking with it right until the end.
When you’re watching all those intimate medical procedures or seeing him try to walk during rehabilitation — those make people wince. But it reminds us we’re all human, we’re all the same. And we hope that we would rally the same way he did if something happened to us. And we’re all secretly afraid we can’t do that. His spirit’s so alive in this film. He’s luminescent on that screen.
Writing about movies does mean writing about just about every topic. He embodied that more than anyone, arguably. He wrote about everything, especially once he started blogging, when he wrote extensively on matters that had nothing to do with film.
When he talked about movies being machines that generate empathy, he meant it. He was so curious. He loved learning about different cultures. We used to travel a lot. We would take our grandchildren to different countries, because we wanted to make sure they were exposed to different cultures, different people, hearing different languages. He spoke about spending two hours of your life in someone else’s shoes — what it feels like to be a person of a different gender, a different age, a different race, a different sexual orientation, a different political belief. He meant that and he embraced that.
Before you met Roger, were you a fan?
I lived in Chicago, so I’m sure I must have read his reviews and watched his television show. Before we started dating, I didn’t know his show was national. I also didn’t know he had written “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” One of my fellow lawyers told me. I saw “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” when it came out and I loved it. I was in college during the Russ Meyer years, and college students loved Russ Meyer movies. I just had to go back and make sure it was good.
I’m also — I’m reluctant to say this but I have to tell the truth: Gene Siskel was my favorite at one time. Once I got to know them both personally, Roger was head and shoulders above Gene. And I loved Gene Siskel. Roger embraced foreign films and he embraced independent films. He made it his business to go to so many festivals. He learned about the film industry, and we would go to the technical side and talk to cinematographers and grips and the hair and make-up people. He wanted to understand every aspect that goes into filmmaking. I respected that so much.
What are your own film tastes? How often did you two disagree?
That question, it hurts — because I did not know Roger and I agreed so often. We would only talk about the ones we disagreed on. We used to battle about the ones we disagreed on. My tastes, of course, are different. We both had eclectic tastes. Though I would always say Roger’s writing made me swoon. I miss it.
How has it been being in the spotlight, where he often stood?
I stayed behind the scenes deliberately. It’s not because I was shy. I was a trial attorney. I was used to being in the courtroom eye. But I was always advocating on behalf of other people. I only went into the public eye after Roger lost his physical voice. So I was advocating on behalf of him. I became his voice. Now I’m advocating for him again. His legacy means so much to me, that people know the good things he did.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge