Photo by Ted Soqui

The Ultra Critic

Long before last Thursday, when he became the 2,288th person (and the first critic) to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Roger Ebert was already a veritable institution. His reviews, essays and interviews for the Chicago Sun-Times — models of journalistic lucidity and wit — are syndicated to more than 200 newspapers worldwide and collected annually in a best-selling anthology. For 30 years, he has co-hosted the weekly television program presently known as Ebert & Roeper. And for the past seven years, he has even had a film festival to call his very own, in none other than his hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Then, something truly remarkable happened. On the occasion of the Walk of Fame ceremony, seven of the major Hollywood studios placed ads in Variety congratulating Ebert on his honor — proof that, unlikely as it seems, a critic can earn the respect of the very people he is wont to criticize. But as with many institutions, one crucial detail risks getting lost amid the celebratory hoo-ha: Roger Ebert is very, very good at what he does.

"I wouldn’t be here without you, Roger. You are one of those who put me on the map." Powerful words, particularly when they’re spoken by the great German director Werner Herzog (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo), who was but one of a host of celebrity speakers including character actor Scott Wilson, legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler and, somewhat oddly, Tony Danza — evidently an old schoolmate of Ebert’s wife, Chaz. (Among those notable personages merely hanging out in the crowd: actors Joe Mantegna and Virginia Madsen; critics Todd McCarthy and Manohla Dargis; producers Tom Luddy and Jan Sharpe; and Milos Stehlik, whose Chicago-based Facets Multimedia is, to my knowledge, the greatest video store on planet Earth.)

No less resonant than Herzog’s remarks, however, were those made to me following the ceremony by Denise McGowan, a Chicagoland schoolteacher whose husband is one of the financial backers of Ebert’s festival. By her own admission, McGowan is hardly a Hollywood insider — "I keep wishing we had bought some new clothes for this trip," she lamented. "We look so Midwestern!" But as I quickly discovered, McGowan is a lot more film savvy than she lets on, and she credits Ebert’s reviews with alerting her to two of her favorite recent films: the Italian romantic comedy Bread and Tulips and the Sundance favorite The Station Agent. Those titles may not seem obscure to the festival-seasoned cinephile for whom Hou Hsiao-Hsien is as much a household name as Steven Spielberg, but at a moment when attendance for specialized films has declined just as precipitously (if not more so) as that for Hollywood blockbusters, it is no small thing that Ebert’s heavily insured pollex continues to point the way for those moviegoers who may not place Film Comment at the top of their bedside reading. In a way, the title of his film festival says it all: Overlooked, so named not for the hotel of The Shining fame, but for those films of merit that, far too often, slip through the cracks.

In 2003, I had the good fortune to attend the Overlooked (or the Ebertfest, as it is also known). It was an annus mirabilis that included a cast-and-crew reunion screening of The Right Stuff; an appearance by Dow Mossman, the long-lost novelist who was the subject of the documentary Stone Reader; and a visit by the French director Bertrand Tavernier, who celebrated his 62nd birthday onstage following a screening of his brilliant policier, L.627. But what I remember most of all is the sight of 1,500 enthusiastic moviegoers cramming over and over again into the Virginia theater — a striking movie palace located on the University of Illinois campus — and of Ebert himself, who rose daily at dawn, introduced each film screening, sat through each film with the audience, discussed each film afterward with the filmmakers and then, around midnight, adjourned to an all-night diner to hold court with whoever wanted to come for another couple of hours. Then, the next day, he did the same thing all over again. The prior year, it was said, he’d fallen and broken his arm on one of the festival’s first days, but, save for a few hours in the E.R., hadn’t skipped a beat. I wish I could say I find that hard to believe.


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