“It seems like a million years ago at times, and at times like it was just yesterday,” says Chaz Ebert during a recent phone conversation, reflecting on the death two years ago of her husband, the late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert.
“Maybe because I’ve been promoting the movie since it debuted at Sundance in 2013, and then all the way up to the Oscar nominations. … There was a whole year of that. Emotionally, it still feels like he’s always with me. Part of it is having the whole experience of making the movie and the other half is having people still talking about the movie.”
The movie she is referring to is, of course, “Life Itself,” the award-winning documentary by director Steve James chronicling the life and career of the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, which was released on DVD and Blu-ray in February.
It’s also been a difficult two years, admits Ebert, reliving all the hugely personal moments depicted in the documentary as it played at various festivals and special screening events. “We didn’t expect that most of what would be filmed would be done while he was in the hospital,” she says, referring to the seemingly unfettered access their close friend James and his crew were given during Roger’s final stages of battling cancer.
“We thought it would be footage of us as festivals, premieres, book signings, going to the opera, those life events that you share with those you love. You know, the opera was our first date — Sept. 25, 1989. We went to see ‘Tosca.’ And I just recently went to see it again at the Lyric and I sat there smiling, thinking about the first time we saw it together.”
“The memories are powerful,” she continues. “The hardship of making the movie were those days when you just didn’t want the camera documenting every moment of your life. Sometimes you just want to be and enjoy each other. You just want time to quietly talk to each other. But now I realize what a gift it is that we have all that. I’m glad we went through everything we went through so that it could be documented as part of not only a record of his achievement in writing but a record of his achievement of the human spirit.”
Despite the critical and audience acclaim the film received, including numerous nominations and several awards for best documentary, the one accolade that eluded “Life Itself” was from the industry Roger Ebert championed for more than four decades in reviews and essays both glowing and scathing.
“Journalists, filmmakers, actors, so many people reached out expressing complete shock that we hadn’t been nominated for [an Oscar for] best documentary,” Chaz Ebert says. “I felt the film deserved an Academy Award nomination and it was comforting to hear from so many people who felt the same. I felt Steve James really deserved that nomination. Everyone who worked hard so hard on this movie deserved it.”
Through it all, Ebert said she had found great comfort and strength in the love she shared with her husband and from the inner strength she never really knew she had.
“Sometimes you feel you have no other choice but to do what you must,” Ebert said. “Do the next right thing. People say you’re strong, but there are days when you don’t feel strong at all. But what else can you do? What else could I do but BE strong? You just keep telling yourself, ‘Yes, I can handle this.’ And you find the strength to do that.”
As the April 4 anniversary of her husband’s passing approached, Ebert said there is one thing she hopes people will take away from “Life Itself.”
“When people ask me what was Roger’s legacy, I think it was just living life with joy, having something to find comfort in. For Roger it was writing — writing reviews and writing about life itself. And also finding comfort in his family and love.”
In addition to the ongoing success of rogerebert.com, and the just-announced Ebert Center for film study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there are plans for celebrating his life and legacy on stage.
Later this year Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater will be presenting “The Black White Play (Honoring the Memory of Roger Ebert through Music),” a musical based on his life.
“I don’t know much about the musical. But I’ll be meeting with [Black Ensemble Theater founder and artistic director] Jackie Taylor so we can work it out,” Ebert says. “… I think Roger would have been tickled pink to know that Jackie was doing a musical about him because he loved BET. He probably would have raised an eyebrow and asked, ‘Is she really gonna have me singing and dancing?'” I don’t think Roger ever thought of himself as a good singer or dancer but he loved to do both.”
“Life Itself” is available from Magnolia Pictures on DVD, and Blu-ray featuring deleted scenes, a Sundance Film Festival tribute, an interview with director Steve James, an AXS TV “Look at Life Itself,” and the theatrical trailer.