Cries, whispers and laughter from the floor to the screen–it’s EBERTFEST 2022!

Wednesday evening kicked off the 2022 festival with “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” which recently won the Oscar for best documentary. On Thursday morning, Ebert’s widow Chaz opened the proceedings by introducing the first full day of programming now that the festival has returned to in-person screenings for the first time since 2019.

“During the ‘great pause,’ we all had meetings and gatherings over Zoom, and you just get all Zoomed out!” Ebert said from the podium at the Virginia Theater, drawing cheers from the crowd that was equal parts masked and unmasked.  “The quarantine taught me [not to] take anybody for granted.  I’ve seen people suffer and I’ve seen people pass that I wish I had said things to while they were here.  

“I won’t take anybody for granted [now].  Not our good friends at the festival, not our sponsors [and] not you who have been coming for so many years.”

This April marks the ninth anniversary of Roger Ebert’s passing at age 70 in 2013.  Chaz, who will herself turn 70 this fall, shared with the Virginia that Roger’s friends used to tease him that she was his “child bride.”  But showing that 70 is the new not-70, Chaz did a little dance and said she was “proud” of her vitality as she closes out her own seventh decade. 

She’s also dating someone new, of whom she shared little other than to say that Roger “would be happy for me”—and that her new beau is a golfer.  Rather apropos considering that the day’s first film was about that very sport.

With that she introduced Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.  Barker said that he first met Roger at a film festival around 1970, and many years later the critic suggested Barker should come to his eponymous film festival (which started out as the “Overlooked” Film Festival) at some point.   

“I don’t really talk; I hide in the bushes,” Barker said was his initial response to the invite.  “I actually have become a confident speaker because of Roger. …  It’s something he had in his mind that was going to work out.”  

With that Barker began to speak about “The Phantom of the Open,” (featured image) which Sony Pictures Classics has already released in the U.K. and will bring to American shores June 3.  The film stars Academy Award winner Mark Rylance in a decidedly non-dramatic turn, but Barker assured the audience that Rylance absolutely had the comic chops to land the film.

In the movie, Rylance stars as Maurice Filtcroft, a British crane operator who, later in life, decides to take up golf.  Through an unbelievable turn of events, he winds up not only applying to the British Open but actually competing…incredibly poorly, and becomes known as the world’s worst golfer.  

What’s more, it’s based on a true story.  And it’s hilarious start to finish.

“I had seen Mark Rylance on the stage, and he was an incredible comedian on the stage,” Barker said after the screening, adding that in that play Rylance climbed up a curtain for comic effect.   

Barker also stressed the continuing value of the theatrical experience, especially after nearly two years of people watching nearly everything at home.  He said that the revenue stream of film exhibitions is still continuing to change, but “the communal experience of watching the film” remains paramount.

As does the studios continuing to take chances on films that defined the 1970s new wave, such as “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”

“I really worry what will happen to film culture if those films can’t be made” anymore, Barker said.

The afternoon’s offerings continued with a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller “The 39 Steps,” followed by a post-screening discussion featuring Barker, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips and Ramin Bahrani, director of “99 Homes” and “The White Tiger,” the latter playing Friday at Ebertfest.  

The ensuing film was bittersweet given that the comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who died earlier this month, was slated to appear for the showing of “Gilbert,” director Neil Berkeley’s documentary about the comedian.  

Fighting back tears, Chaz Ebert said she believed Gottfried would be “tickled” that this year’s festival was dedicated not only to his memory but also to the late Sidney Poitier. 

“He would see the irony and the humor and the serendipity and the synchronicity of it,” Chaz said.  

Chaz Ebert, wife of the late Roger Ebert, at the podium at Ebertfest 2022

“Roger said ‘I would never want to see a movie about me that I wouldn’t want to see about someone else,’” Chaz said by way of introducing “Gilbert” director Berkeley.  Like “Life Itself,” “Gottfried” aimed to get to the person behind the media personality.  “I’m still happy we’ll be able to celebrate his life,” Chaz said.

Fighting tears of his own, Berkeley took to the podium at the Virginia, sharing that this would be the first time he had watched “Gilbert” since its subject had passed.  

“Whenever we screen the movie, [Gottfried] would always laugh the whole time,” Berkeley said, adding that Gottfried’s widow Dara is an executive producer on the documentary.  “Dara said she wanted to make the movie so I could travel with him and make sure he was fed.  I’ve been so lucky to have been able to tell this person’s life.”

In interviews for “Gilbert,” Gottfried drops the squinty visage and high-pitched whine that was his trademark. We see him at home in New York, sharing an apartment with Dara and their two young children.  Even when he wasn’t on stage, he nonetheless was ever the joker, dropping filthy and inappropriate limericks into holiday and anniversary cards to Dara.  

At home he comes across as shy and introverted, the opposite of the manic madman we saw over so many decades on TV—but just as funny.  He loved Dara and their kids, but he also couldn’t resist being out on the road, where he nurtured a rather strange habit of collecting hundreds of sample sizes of hotel toiletries.  

We also learn that Gottfried only began working blue after the notorious failure of his joke about a plane “connecting at the Empire State Building” in the weeks after 9/11.  When the gag fell flat in that New York Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner, he launched into the now-famous riff on the old “aristocrats” joke that, despite its filth, somehow won back that room.

In the film’s most incredible sequence, we see Gottfried working a club that adjoins a convention center where military buffs have gathered in various costumes, several of them of the Nazi variety.  Gottfried, who was Jewish, couldn’t resist inviting several to his gig, who not only claimed they were fans but even took a photo with Gottfried, in which he “enthusiastically” gave the “Heil, Hitler” salute next to his costumed fans.

Following the screening, Dara joined the Virginia Theater via video call, to warm applause.  Chaz Ebert, knowing something of grief and mourning, offered Dara her condolences at the start of the conversation that also featured Berkeley and director Terry Zwigoff, whose “Ghost World” will screen Friday.  

“It still feels like he will walk in the room at any second,” Dara said.

Berkeley shared that, by chance, he met Dara’s best friend, who introduced him to the Gottfried family hours later.  Gilbert was reluctant at first, but it was his sister Arlene’s cancer diagnosis that pushed him to say yes to the documentary.  Arlene, who died in 2017, is seen being treated in “Gilbert,” with her brother somehow still cracking jokes by her side. 

“I went to their house basically every day for nine months [and] shot 300 hours of footage,” Berkeley said of working on his documentary.  

“I asked Gilbert if he was willing to do this,” Dara said on the video screen, adding that her husband’s initial reaction was “documentaries are for when you’re dead.”  “Well, here you go Gilbert,” Dara said, which drew a laugh, however dark, from the Virginia.

“He was so fearful in person, which I understand as a Jew,” added Zwigoff.  “But on stage he was so brave.”  

Dara said the couple’s children, now 12 and 14, recently saw “Gilbert” for the first time.  She was worried considering how much naughty material was in it but said they appreciated it all the same.

“We laughed all the time.  The kids made him laugh,” she said, adding that her son once told a preschool classmate “my dad is funny at home but not at work.”  

Dara said that Gilbert never ever rehearsed his material.  He had a photographic memory and made his comedy sets different seemingly every time.

When asked about that rather surreal scene of Gilbert cavorting with the men in Nazi costumes, Berkeley said that the moment almost felt scripted, though he assured the audience it was all real and happened on its own.  All he did was press record.  

“Every Q&A, he would say, ‘Boy, those Nazis were a gift from God,’” said Berkeley, adding that several of them came to see his comedy show that evening.  “I didn’t say you should go in uniform!” Berkeley said to laughs, adding that Gilbert every year would tweet on Hitler’s birthday: “Happy birthday Hilter.  You’re dead and Jews run the world.”  

“I forgot the movie ends with Gilbert laughing,” the director said.  “It made me feel so good.”

“Thank you to our audience for being so loving and kind,” Chaz Ebert said to wrap up the screening (featured image: “The Phantom of the open”)

Eric Althoff is reporting from Ebertfest 2022   

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