When I had reached the lobby once again, A.O. Scott had chanced up the stairs, as well. I took my leave from Odie and walked over to introduce myself. Here I was, an amateur writer, finally meeting one of the country’s premiere critics. I was breathless. This being the first night he’d seen Life Itself, we quickly launched into a discussion of the screening.
He told me hosting the Q&A panel after seeing such an emotional film was jarring, and that he’d had to collect himself before getting onstage. He found the movie to be a sympathetic and rather complete portrait befitting its subject. We discussed Steve James’ approach to the piece, and decided Life Itself had successfully tapped into the empathetic core of cinema that Roger Ebert was so fond of.
We parted ways on this simple yet poignant analysis, and I was subsequently approached by a shock of red hair. This lovely young woman was Lanford Beard, an Entertainment Weekly staff writer with whom I’d had some Twitter correspondence prior to the event. We had connected because we were both donors to the Life Itself campaign, and Lanford said it was good to finally put a real face to a digital one. I agreed. I was happy to learn that, like me, she was also a sucker for the champagne. We discussed the movie as we quietly reveled in both the fanciness of the evening and the quality of the drink offered to us.
One of my favorite encounters of the night was with Columbia-educated filmmaker Ramin Bahrani. The man simply embodies humility and general kindness of spirit. In the film, he expresses unabashed appreciation for Roger Ebert’s influence on his career. This was immediately apparent in conversation. He has an easy-going, soft-spoken nature, but his enthusiasm was always palpable.
I told him the scene where he talks about the puzzle Mr. Ebert had given him was perhaps my favorite in the whole film. I said that he was now part of an incredible legacy that dated back to the hands of Alfred Hitchcock himself. He took my praise with a sheepish smile, and I knew then that Mr. Ebert had chosen well. Here was a man who took nothing for granted, and who valued history dearly. Mr. Bahrani told me he’d have to give the prized puzzle away some day. As to who, he had no idea – but he was excited to meet the critic, writer, director, or actor that would inspire him to pass it on.
Turning from Mr. Bahrani, I finally had the chance to meet the woman of the hour: Chaz Ebert. With a wide grin and intent eyes, she absolutely exhibited the brilliant warmth one would expect given her appearances on television, in film (Life Itself), and in print (RogerEbert.com). As soon as I approached her, she immediately asked where she knew me from. I said I had no idea, but that perhaps it was product of some sort of latent telepathic connection. That earned me a laugh.
I told her it what an honor it was to finally meet her. Two other attendees had happened into the conversation, and together we reassured her about her reservations regarding the film. There is one scene where she stubbornly encourages her equally resistant husband to get out of his chair and climb some stairs. She felt she came off as mean-spirited in that sequence considering his disability and imminent passing.
Reiterating that Roger Ebert was sharp as a tack until the end, we promised her that sequence demonstrated strength. She never stopped treating him like the wisecracking, prolific, opinionated giant that he was, disability or no, and that that was admirable. I emphasized that not only did I think the scene was far from embarrassing, but that it was a critical moment of honesty. She seemed comforted by our words.
Bothering her just a bit longer, I asked that Chaz sign my well-worn copy of Life Itself. She did, to my delight, and then I left her to escape the throng of fans into the snowy New York night. I left the Paley Center myself shortly afterward with Odie, who kindly walked me to the nearest subway station. We parted ways as he headed back to New Jersey and I hopped on a train to stay with some very generous friends on the Upper East Side.
I hope this moving film and its screenings give Chaz and Roger Ebert’s friends and loved ones some modicum of closure. It is clear from this event that Mr. Ebert was so much more than a mere newspaperman. Nine months later, he still has legions of adoring fans sending him off with sweet champagne and crispy bread adorned with savory mutton and salmon.
We all wish he were still here, but I have to say: what a way to go.
This article was graciously republished on RogerEbert.com on February 5, 2014.