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Roger Ebert: Passionate critic, half of a great love story

 

“Try to read this love letter from Roger Ebert to his wife, Chaz, and not cry. When I met him at the Drake Hotel in Chicago for a speaking arrangement I had made for my features editor group years ago, the first thing he mentioned was his wedding party there. A great writer and pure class.”

When I heard of Ebert’s death at 70 after a long battle with cancer, that was the simple message I posted on Facebook, with a shorter version on Twitter. It linked to an excerpt from “Roger Ebert’s Journal” posted July 17, 2012, in the Chicago Sun-Times titled “Roger loves Chaz.”


Roger Ebert and his wife, Chaz, kiss as he receives his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The couple married in 1992. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Written with his usual skill, the essay was full of heart, as well. We knew how passionate Ebert was about movies. But this long and loving tribute to Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, the Chicago lawyer who ended his bachelorhood, showed how much that passion extended to the women he credited with completing his life. As one of the comments on my Facebook page said, “Wow. Just  wow.”

Other comments quoted their favorite parts, as they would quote lines from a favorite Ebert movie review, and added their own reactions.

Ebert: “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love …”

Comment: “He’s said it all and so much more. To be loved like this. Man.”

And this one from a journalist friend:

Ebert: “Her love letters were poetic, idealistic and often passionate. … As a newspaperman, I observed she never, ever, made a copy-reading error.”

Comment: “Ah, where are all the men who appreciate a woman who avoids errors in grammar and spelling?”

Actress and avid Tweeter Alyssa Milano retweeted my post, so now it’s still making the rounds.

Fittingly, the journal entry features a wedding picture, with Gene Siskel – the reviewing partner of whom Ebert once said, “We were very close and friendly … except when we were fighting.” The photo — which shows Siskel’s wife and two young daughters, flower girls at the ceremony – confirms what we all wanted to believe, that the private friendship was stronger than any professional conflict. The Chicago Tribune’s editorial cartoon of course has them again sharing time in a darkened theater.

Ebert was the most famous film critic ever; whether he was championing a blockbuster, a cartoon or a cheaply made independent production, his words were accessible, witty and full of his deep love for the art form and for life. Ebert was proud of both his Pulitzer Prize and his screenwriting credit for B-movie producer Russ Meyer’s 1970 film “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” which Ebert called, “the best rock camp horror exploitation musical ever made.”

An NPR report told the story of his father, a master electrician who could fix anything at the University of Illinois, where he worked. He wanted more for his son, though, the life of the professors who sat in their offices and had time to just think. So he purposely passed none of his own talents to his son, who succeeded spectacularly according to dad’s plan.

That seemed so right for the man who was erudite, yet so down to earth. When I was asked to approach Ebert for that speech, someone passed along an e-mail. I was surprised that he answered me immediately, and was gracious and so accommodating, working his appearance around screenings.

I got a call from his publisher days after, asking how many copies of his latest movie book I would need; Ebert wanted to make sure each member of the group got one. (He told me when I met him in the hotel lobby that he wouldn’t have time to sign them, though he stayed and autographed every one.)

The question-and-answer session was a hoot. When someone asked what to do about a child who wouldn’t watch any black-and-white movies and was missing out on so many classics, Ebert replied deadpan: Lock him in a room until he changes his mind … maybe slip him a slice of bread under the door.

Yes, he loved the movies and everyone who loved the movies will miss him. As President Obama said in a statement, “For a generation of Americans — and especially Chicagoans — Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive — capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.”

A couple of years ago, I was up for a columnist award in the same category as Ebert, and it was an honor. I certainly didn’t mind coming in third to Ebert’s first place, and was thrilled when he appeared via Skype to accept. We would e-mail from time to time ever since that first meeting years ago, and when he retweeted one of my columns to his more than 800,000 followers, I felt I had arrived.

When illness changed his appearance and claimed his voice, it was Chaz, he wrote, who encouraged him: “My instinct was to guard myself. I can never be on television as I once was. She said, ‘Yes, but people are interested in what you have to say, not in how you say it.’ The point is not which of us is correct. The point is that she’s encouraging me. She has more faith in me than I do.”

He became the man his father envisioned, the professor with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, who taught us about more than the movies.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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