"Life Itself," Steve James' documentary about the late Roger Ebert, has been playing to select audiences since its debut at 2014's Sundance Film Festival.
Now in wider release, this extraordinary film is a fitting tribute to the man who exemplified film criticism for entire generations of filmgoers. When cancer took Ebert's vocal cords, his voice continued to ring out through extensive comments online. A pioneer on Twitter, Ebert used social media to connect with a worldwide audience on a number of topics that went well beyond film.
Ebert's wife Chaz has, in many ways, taken up his mantle, from hosting his annual Ebertfest in Chicago to supporting and promoting critics and filmmakers all over the world as she continues the legacy of having an Ebert at major international festivals.
Moviefone Canada spoke with Chaz the day after the highly emotional Sundance premiere in January 2014.
Moviefone Canada: The film never does give us the answer about where the title "Life Itself" came from.
Chaz Ebert: The title came from a letter that Studs Turkel wrote to Roger when Roger got out of the hospital [following] several surgeries. [Roger] had been in the hospital for about a year. Studs, who was a friend, wrote and said, "Roger, you're writing about movies and politics and people and life itself, which is the best that it's ever been."
So Roger chose that, and that's how his memoir became titled "Life Itself."
How do you balance exposing your emotions and exposing your relationship with your husband in his last moments to an audience?
I bet Roger's up there having a laugh somewhere, because I was always the one who was more private. He was very public and very out there, and I loved the life that I lived with him, but I was always more behind-the-scenes and that's the way I liked it. Now, I had to step out. When he lost his physical voice, I had to become his voice, in a sense, for public speaking. I used to be a trial attorney, so it's not like I'm shy and retiring, but I'm just much more private.
You're so used to watching films, you must in some ways be seeing your story as happening to a series of characters. Yet here it's not simply a documentary, it's your own story.
Of course it's awkward, and because I've been used to for over 20 years going to the movies with Roger. Part of me was looking at it from a cinematic viewpoint and making some observations about this and that, the same as I would in any other film, and the rest of it was like, "Oh my god, that's Roger, that's me and my family." So yeah, it's awkward.
What, then, does the film mean to you, both personally and aesthetically?
Aesthetically, I thought Steve James did a fine job. The film was colourful and he really did show Roger the man, not just the icon. I'm glad that he did that because it makes it more interesting cinematically.
On a personal level, it was hard. I was glad to see Roger. Anytime that I can sit and watch my husband, it's a wonderful experience for me; I spent 24 years of my life with him. I feel like the screen, what he stood for is still here with me, so that was good. Some parts are really hard to watch.
Some people who don't know you and don't know your story are going to think: "What's the wife going to think about all of these well-endowed ladies he was obsessed with via 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls'?"
When we first started dating, I didn't know that he had written "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." One of my coworkers told me. I was practicing law and one of my fellow co-workers told me, you know that guy you're dating, he wrote those Russ Meyer movies. I remember enjoying "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" when it first came out. One of the things that I was most proud of, going back to watch, was how he treated the African-American characters in that movie. If he had been really condescending about them, I don't know if I would have gone out with him. It may be a strange thing to say, but I saw his consciousness, even in the campy movie. And hey, he likes big boobies! So what, who doesn't?
But what were the things that were hard to see? Was it him suffering or something specific about the behaviour that was showcased? Occasionally, and to the film's benefit, he comes across as a bit of an asshole.
I don't think he came across as an asshole, but I think he came across as someone who was, in the beginning, struggling with his drinking. I never knew him in his drinking phase. We all evolve as human beings, and Roger never set himself up as a saint.
What bothered me was not knowing that he was going to leave us that soon. There's the part where Roger is telling Steve that his cancer has returned. I remember that day because he had just gotten the news. I really thought that Roger was an optimist and that we had plenty more years to go. I thought three more years. That was hard because I relived that day when I was watching.
Roger posted his "leave of presence" announcement a day before he passed, but clearly it would have been written well in advance.
Yeah, he wrote it a little bit before. His 46th year as a film critic was April 3, 2013, so he probably put it on the website the night before that and then he passed away the next day.
He had written it maybe two weeks before, and he had all of these plans. When you go back and read it, he had all of these things that he was going to do, he knew he was going to take "a leave of presence."
I love that by the way -- "a leave of presence." His editors said, "No, you mean a leave of absence," and he said, "I'm going to be present." He insisted on that wording and I think that's amazing, because he's as present as ever. I think he did take a leave of presence.
Rightly or wrongly, for future generations this will stand as a record of the man you loved. Is there something that wouldn't make it into a film that you would like the audience to know about him? Is the film a definitive view of the private elements of a very public person?
It was never meant to be definitive. It's not even a whole biography of Roger, and Steve James knew that. That's why it's called "Life Itself," because it's based on the memoir, which is not a full autobiography. There will be other projects, other things that you could tell.
There were so many things that Steve could not include. Almost none of the political stuff is in the film, and almost none of the travel stuff that was so interesting. None of the things about his art, really, maybe just a little bit of it, because he was a sketch artist, so much that's not in there. There's room for a lot more, but this was the best first record documenting Roger's life and I think Steve James did a great job and I'm really grateful for it.
Are you finding in some ways that this is a final step in closing a particular chapter in his life, now that this project is seeing the light of day?
I see it this way: this is a beautiful part of my grieving process, because I'm still in mourning. This is a beautiful part of my process. This film is such a gift and can help in the catharsis.
"Life Itself" is currently playing in limited release.