Photo by Ted Soqui

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
; 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.

LA Weekly