In his newly released memoir, Life Itself, Roger Ebert begins the chapter about his wife with “How can I tell you about Chaz?” and says that “her love was like a wind pushing me back from the grave” during his battle with cancer.
But Chaz Ebert’s gifts – personal and professional – have benefited many others in addition to Roger. Her background includes a stint in a modern dance troupe, a career as a trial attorney, and 20 years as vice president of the Ebert Company.
On Thursday, Oct. 13, Ebert receives a 2011 Focus Achievement Award from Women in Film Chicago in recognition of her work as executive producer of “Ebert Presents at the Movies” and producer of the annual Ebertfest in Champaign.
In light of the occasion, we asked Ebert about some of her favorite films, film memories, and filmmakers. The following interview was conducted via email.
REEL: What is the first film you remember seeing with Roger?
EBERT: I think it was a Bunuel film, Un Chien Andalou. We loved watching Bunuel together.
REEL: What movies do you consider indispensable viewing for anyone who truly wants to understand and appreciate the art of cinema, “desert island” films that you feel you can repeatedly watch?
EBERT: Those are two different types of films. “Indispensable for appreciating the art of cinema” may not be the “desert island films,” but some of both films off the top of my head would be: almost any documentary with a conscience, like Food, Inc. Or any film by Stanley Kubrick, but especially A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove.
If I wanted to cry or emote it would include Terms of Endearment, The Color Purple, Tous Les Matins De Monde, any film by Nicole Holofcener, or any head-over-heels love story.
For pure cinematic wonder, the films of Fellini, John Cassavetes, Jane Campion, Alan Rudolph; the films of Charles Burnett, Spike Lee, Julie Taymor; any film with Isabelle Huppert or by Kasi Lemmons, or the Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze, Pedro Almodovar, or John Sayles.
For fun, action films with Bruce Lee, especially Enter the Dragon. Or Charles Bronson or South Korean revenge films like Old Boy. Or muscular films by Kathryn Bigelow; science fiction films like Dark City; scary films like The Exorcist. Any film by Lars Von Trier – whether successful or not, they are always visually interesting, even if sometimes immature.
Any film with Alfre Woodard, Laura Linney, Denzel Washington, or the 1970s and ‘80s Robert De Niro films. Any film with good dancing, even in 3D and well-made British costume dramas.
Okay, I see why Roger doesn’t like to make lists! Where do you start? Where do you stop?
REEL: Are there any films you and Roger disagree about?
EBERT: We disagree about A Clockwork Orange. It’s one of my favorite films and it just leaves him cold. I don’t get his love of Joe Versus the Volcano.
We do talk about our differences in opinion, but there are so many films that we agree on that we end up discussing those. We both passionately agree on well-made films where people commit random acts of kindness.
In both a concrete and philosophical way, we believe in “goodness.”
REEL: What is the quality that you think most defines excellence in film criticism?
EBERT: Having the curiosity to acquire a broad base of knowledge and life experiences really helps one excel in film criticism. And having the desire to communicate that to your readers or viewers in as accessible a way as possible also helps.
REEL: And finally, do you have a favorite movie or television show that was either set in or shot in Chicago?
EBERT: I like Chicago Tonight, fun shows like 190 North and Check Please, and objectively and not biased, Ebert Presents At the Movies.
For films shot in Chicago, who can resist The Fugitive and The Blues Brothers. And thank God for the Barbershop guys, George Tillman and Bob Teitel, who come back to Chicago to make movies from time-to-time.