Life Itself director Steve James, left, and Chaz Ebert, center.
Photo: Ebert Movie/Facebook
WWRD?: What Would Roger Do? That’s the question Chaz Ebert found herself scrambling to answer this Tuesday when a loud pop rang out two-thirds of the way through the only Cannes screening of Life Itself, the moving documentary about her late husband, venerated film critic Roger Ebert. With the loud pop came a flash of green. Then the screen went completely black. There was no one in the projection booth, and no Cannes Film Festival personnel in the theater to fix the problem. “I was horrified!” says Chaz. “Because I didn’t know what to do, and initially I thought, Oh, it’ll be over in five minutes. But that didn’t happen.” No one made any sort of announcement. The audience began to get restless; this is, after all, a film festival, and everyone’s scheduled meticulously. WWRD? Chaz wondered, panicking. Then she knew: “Roger would take control of the situation,” she says.
So Chaz grabbed the hand of director Steve James, who long ago directed the Ebert-approved documentary Hoop Dreams, and led him to the front of the house, where they proceeded to do an impromptu Q&A for the full 30 minutes it took for someone to restore projection (it apparently required a very minor fix). Later, Chaz could barely remember what people asked, or what she said: “I was in the moment, trying to make lemons out of lemonade.”
Cannes was the first film festival Chaz attended after Roger’s death (only a month and a half later), and the memory of last year’s very emotional visit, when she and I first met and she poured her heart out, seems to flood over her at points. Before 2013, she’d spent 23 years coming to Cannes with Roger. He proposed to her spontaneously in 1991 in nearby Monte Carlo, when they’d taken a day trip to see the Grand Prix. She still stays, as they always did, at the Hotel Splendid, in a room now called the Roger Ebert Suite.
In a way, she says it felt like he was there when the Life Itself projector broke in such dramatic fashion. “Roger used to say things that were the most memorable were when something went wrong and someone saved the day,” says Chaz. “He said it sears it in your memory; years later, it gives you something to talk about. And I just looked up and said, ‘Roger, was that you?!’” He’d also often talk about how people moaned and complained too much and should be more proactive — an example Chaz has been trying to follow in the year since his death by not only maintaining but beefing up Roger’s website. She’s hired new critics (including Vulture’s own Matt Zoller Seitz, who also serves as the site’s editor-in-chief in addition to his TV critic responsibilities here), and started a Roger Ebert Scholarship with the Sundance Institute to help young writers. Stepping up after his passing was something Roger had encouraged Chaz to do. “If you see a man who can have a smart, strong woman and love and adore her rather than thinking he has to tear her down or be afraid of her or feel challenged by her, that’s a man who is fully secure,” says Chaz. “That’s what I loved about my husband.”