There were big laughs and some tears. Strong emotions and a bit of drama. And some insight into the life and the soul of a remarkable man.
It sounds like a movie Roger Ebert would have given an enthusiastic "thumbs up."
Hundreds of friends, family, colleagues, and well wishers gathered at the Chicago Theater in Chicago, Illinois Thursday night for "Roger Ebert: A Celebration Of Life With Love From Chaz," a public memorial for the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic who died April 4 at the age of 70. The event, which was webcast for fans who couldn't attend in person, included memories from Chicago-based actors John and Joan Cusack, Ebert's fellow Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper, filmmakers Gregory Nava, Julie Dash, and Andrew Davis, film critics Todd McCarthy and Scott Foundas, and comedian and activist Dick Gregory, among many others. Ebert's widow, Chaz Hammelsmith-Ebert, appeared with her children and grandchildren by her side.
Hammelsmith-Ebert spoke with great passion about her late husband's intelligence, his capacity for love, and his tenacity through a long struggle with cancer. She said, "When he was disfigured, when I looked at him, I saw beauty."
Hammelsmith-Ebert summed up the emotions in the room by paraphrasing a memorable line from Ebert's screenplay for the cult favorite "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls": "Roger, this is your happening, and it's freaking me out."
The Cusack siblings took the stage together, and Joan read from a letter President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama had written for the occasion. "Roger poured his heart and soul into bringing the world of cinema into our everyday lives," the Obamas wrote. "Challenging the perception of film merely as a means of entertainment, Roger taught us to fully immerse ourselves in the movies, to understand and engage with the feelings they evoke, and the ideas they inspire."
John Cusack remembered Ebert's influence on both critics and those in the creative community. "(Ebert) was always supportive of artists, and he always gave you a fair shake," John Cusack said. "I always thought of him in that Chicago tradition of Studs Terkel and Mike Royko … he was a newspaper man. He was always the Chicago Sun-Times, and he sort of reeked of integrity whenever he talked to you."
Richard Roeper, who worked with Ebert on their celebrated television series, also spoke of Ebert's dedication to the printed word. "He always thought of himself as a newspaperman first, as a reporter," Roeper said. "He was covering the movies as a beat."
But Roeper also shared a number of funny memories of Ebert, saying, "How do you tell a story about the best storyteller you ever met, and that was Roger?" Roeper seemed to especially enjoy recalling an epic argument between Ebert and filmmaker Michael Moore as they debated both politics and food in a diner, with Moore finally exclaiming, "Holy s---, you're more liberal than I am!"
Marlene Iglitzen, the widow of Ebert's most famous colleague, Gene Siskel, discussed the relationship between the two critics who brought film reviewing to television. According to Iglitzen, the prickly on-screen relationship between the two men was not an act, and that early on in their partnership, they genuinely didn't care for one another. However, that began to change when Ebert met Chaz Hammelsmith, and he opened up to others as he found lasting love. Iglitzen said that after Siskel died, Ebert helped to keep her husband's legacy alive.
Along with the speakers, two gospel groups performed, and enough people were on hand to share their memories that at the end of the evening, after close to three hours, Hammelsmith-Ebert apologized to actors Chris Tucker and Scott Wilson from the stage, saying that there was simply no time left for them to speak.
And director Gregory Nava, whose film "El Norte" was championed by Ebert, shared a telling story of visiting the critic only a few days before his death. To his surprise, Ebert was busy writing messages to him and others at his side.
"Roger didn’t ask us to be with him to comfort him, Nava said while fighting though tears. "He wanted us to be with him to give us something."
A fine though on an evening devoted to giving something back to Ebert's memory.
See video from the ceremony: