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The documentary Life Itself about the late Roger Ebert premieres in limited release on July 4. To celebrate America’s most beloved movie critic, this week we’re looking back on his inimitable life and career and his passionate love for film.
Life Itself, the compelling new documentary directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), is a warts-and-all portrait of the late, great film critic Roger Ebert. One person who figures prominently in both the film — and Ebert’s own life — is his wife Chaz.
Over 21 years of marriage, the pair were nearly inseparable. Their relationship, which endured his frequent traveling, faced its biggest challenge when Roger was first diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and in the years leading up to his death in April, 2013.
To get a better sense of the couple’s strong bond, we asked Chaz – a movie buff who oversees The Ebert Company, which includes RogerEbert.com – to tell us about their life at the movies.
The First Movie They Watched Together
Shortly after Roger and Chaz began dating — Sept. 25, 1989, to be exact — they had their first shared film-viewing experience: Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, a 1929 surrealist short created with Salvador Dali that infamously depicted a razor slitting a woman’s eyeball. It wasn’t a tough watch for Chaz, who fashioned herself a film buff: “That’s probably one reason he was impressed with me, because I already knew about foreign films and independent films.”. (Roger, in fact, wrote that this particular foreign film is an “ancestor of today’s independent digital movies.”)
“We both dug Buñuel,” Chaz explains. While some details remain fuzzy 25 years later, she believes they watched the film at Roger’s country home and thinks he may have been preparing to lecture on Buñuel for a class he taught at the University of Chicago’s enrichment division.
As for being a film aficionado who happened to be dating one of the world’s most preeminent critics, Chaz said their first movie viewing wasn’t as weird as you might think: “If Roger was alive today, and I had to watch a movie with Roger Ebert — wow. That would be kind of intimidating. But back then, it wasn’t. It was like, This is a man I’m dating, he likes movies, he’s on a TV show. I didn’t even know he was nationally syndicated. I thought he was just on our local PBS channel.”
The Movies They Fell for Together
“We loved movies about love,” Chaz says. Among their faves: Henry Jaglom’s 1998 romantic drama Déjà Vu, a story of lost love and magical realism that Chaz said the couple watched on date nights in both Venice, Italy and Venice, California. (“We all look for love like the love in Déjà Vu.We hardly ever find it,” Roger wrote in his review, though you can be sure he meant a very general “we”). Another favorite was Paul Cox’s 2001 indie Innocence, about a man and woman who fall in love early in their lives, are never able to be together and marry other people, and rekindle in their late-sixties.
“We loved that movie, it’s so romantic.” (Wrote Roger: “Here is the most passionate and tender love story in many years, so touching because it is not about a story, not about stars, not about a plot, not about sex, not about nudity, but about love itself.”)
Not all the films they fell for were “sweet, innocent movies,” says Chaz — some, she recalls, were “bizarre.” Like Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, a 1996 drama about a paralyzed man (Stellan Skarsgård) who asks his wife (Emily Watson) to sleep with other men. “The passion of the woman’s love for her husband was something that touched us deeply,” Chaz said. (Roger has this to say: “Not many movies like this get made, because not many filmmakers are so bold, angry and defiant.”)
And while they gravitated toward romance, Roger and Chaz did not, as you might think, watch a movie on their honeymoon. “Our honeymoon was our honeymoon,” Chaz laughs.
The Movies They Debated
Over the nearly 25 years Roger Ebert and his longtime partner-friend-nemesis Gene Siskel shared their reviews with a TV audience, there were a number of films on whose merit they vehemently disagreed.
These included Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and David Cronenberg’s Crash. Of course, Roger and Chaz had their cinematic disputes, too.
“A Clockwork Orange is one of my favorite movies of all time,” Chaz says. “Roger gave it a thumbs-down. Gene Siskel was the one who told me … Gene was on my side, he just wanted me to know how wrong Roger was. So I asked Roger to watch it again, and we watched it together. And he said, ‘I’m still cold about it. There’s something about it that just doesn’t resonate with me.’” (While Orange, along with Full Metal Jacket, make two Kubrick classics Roger didn’t care for, Chaz insists her husband loved the filmmaker, adding, “He recognized the cinematic greatness of those movies, he said they just left him cold.”)
On the other side of the coin was his love of Joe Vs. the Volcano — Chaz describes it as “over-the-top and inexplicable.” Roger wrote of the Tom Hanks comedic adventure, “What’s strongest about the movie is that it does possess a philosophy, an idea about life.” He wanted to include the movie in Ebertfest, the annual film festival held every April in Champaign, Ill., but Chaz continually vetoed it. That was until after Roger fell ill. “Finally, one year I watched it over and over again trying to figure it out, and read what he wrote about it,” she recalls. “And [snaps], something clicked in me one day, and I knew… I had a change of heart about it, we had it in the festival and I enjoyed it a lot.”
Chaz says she now regrets some of the arguments they had over movies. “The thing that I am so sorry about, that I just realized over this last year since we lost Roger, is how much we actually disagreed on movies. When he was alive and we would have a disagreement, the [one] disagreement overshadowed the fact that most of the movies we agreed on.”
The Author and Movie That Got Roger Through His Sickness
Chaz credits books, not movies, for helping Roger through the earliest, and most difficult, months of his cancer treatment. “It was too difficult for him to sit up in the hospital bed to watch movies, and his attention span was a little shorter,” she recalls. Chaz would typically have to read to Roger (“He was so sick and so weak in the beginning that he couldn’t lift heavy books, and most of the books that he liked were like a thousand-page books”), and there was one author in particular who they read: Cormac McCarthy, whose books No Country for Old Men and The Road were turned into popular movies. “Cormac McCarthy had a way of writing that was so unsentimental that it went straight to Roger’s psyche,” she says. “Roger really responded to that.”
There was one film, however, that reenergized America’s favorite critic during his weakest moments, a time when Chaz was “afraid he would sink.” Chaz said she went to an early screening of Stephen Frears’ The Queen, starring Helen Mirren in an Oscar-winning turn, and knew immediately that her husband would love it. They arranged for a screener to be sent to the hospital, and though Roger hadn’t written a review (or even used a computer) in many months, after watching the film, he signaled immediately for his laptop. (Roger had lost the ability to speak after a 2006 surgery that removed cancerous tissue in his jaw.)
"He set up, he started typing – and he’s a fast, fast typer – he started writing the review,” she remembers. “It was so beautiful, he was so excited. He’d signal, ‘Bring me more.’ So he wrote six reviews after not being able to do anything for months…. He had been at a point where he was getting so sick and tired of looking at those four walls, he had been in the hospital so long, he was going into depression. [Claps] He wrote those reviews and I saw him come back. I saw him come back from the depths of not caring… He wrote those reviews and he was back.”