Tag Archives: Roger Ebert

Remembering Roger

 

Roger Ebert taught me a lot about movies.

When we sailed together on Dusty Cohl’s bi-annual Floating Film Festival, Roger would screen some already much-appreciated film — Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, Casablanca — and dissect it frame by frame. A master class, if you will. But Roger’s frame-by frame-process was different. He called it “democracy in the dark” and he urged his audience to share our observations during his narrative, even right in the middle of a scene if that was when the urge struck us. After all, it wasn’t as if we didn’t know how it was going to end.

Sometimes it took two or three 90-minute sessions to get through a film. To be honest with you, I never intended to stay for any of them. I had already seen Citizen Kane more times than I could remember; I felt neither the desire nor the need to see it again. My plan was to be present for the first session, just to show my support, and then quietly slip away after the lights went down. I would give it, say, 20 minutes, just to make sure the screening was going all right. But then Roger would make some little comment, give some historical background to a scene we were watching, and I would somehow lose track of time. And 90 minutes later Roger would be saying that he thought this was probably a good place in the film to take a break. By which point I would decide that I would only stay for the first 10 minutes of the next session. Because, after all, how many times could you watch Citizen Kane and keep finding new things in it? But somehow Roger always did. So I always stayed.

He was a great teacher. He taught by example. He didn’t preach; he practiced.

rogerebert-736078I remember the year that Roger came to TIFF with his new laptop voice. He was seeing lots of movies, but also doing some interviews. I asked Michael Caine how it felt to be interviewed by Roger and his new voice.

“Now that you mention it,” said Caine, “I realize I barely noticed it. It just seemed like another interview with Roger.”

I reported Caine’s reaction back to Roger. “Michael said he felt completely at home with you,” I added.

Roger scrawled something on his ever-present notepad and handed it to me. Of course he felt completely at home, he wrote. When I asked him questions I used the laptop voice with the British accent!

In the last few years he was living in a special state of grace. We spent far more time worrying about him than he did. He was busy establishing a whole new curriculum, teaching us how to be human. It was an amazing course. It was a tough course. It was, as you might have predicted, the course less traveled. Had any of us expected, even for a moment, that it could be anything less?

Roger left us a year ago today.

He left us richer for his presence. He left us poorer for his absence.

So why am I laughing?

Because when I think of him, as I often do, what I remember most is how funny he was.

My most vivid memories of Roger were at the Cannes Film Festival with Dusty Cohl and Billy Baxter. Dusty was the uncrowned King of the Hotel Carlton, and the most coveted Ask at Cannes was an Invitation to join him at his table on the Carlton Terrace. Billy was the boisterous Pretender to the Throne at the Hotel Majestic, and ruled the Majestic Bar with an iron American Express credit card.

Roger had carte blanche at both tables on both terraces, but on most evenings, after we had filed our stories, Roger would hold court at Dusty’s table on the Carlton Terrace and regale us with a bottomless repertoire of jokes. He was an extraordinarily good joke-teller, as good as any seasoned standup comedian, and his rapid-fire hysterically funny homages to Henny Youngman and Lou Jacobi and other Catskill comics frequently sparked uncontrollable shrieks of laughter from our table on the Terrace.

This was the ’70s, by the way, when our days and nights in Cannes were constantly fueled by cigarettes and alcohol and a fair amount of champagne. The day before the festival began, hotels and restaurants in Cannes produced ‘special’ menus and ‘special’ drink lists, both with outrageously high prices.. (When one of his guests ordered a glass of orange juice, Dusty winced. “How about vodka and orange juice?” he countered. “Same price!”)

And in one of Roger’s great columns from Cannes, he told his Chicago readers how Edy Williams had climbed up on our table to perform an impromptu striptease for a cadre of clamoring photographers. Roger admitted that he found this quite upsetting, not because Edy was taking her clothes off, but because when she got up on our table she almost knocked over his bottle of Perrier water. “And if you knew how much a bottle of Perrier water costs at the Carlton Terrace,” he assured his readers, “you’d be pretty upset too.”

When Roger stopped drinking I suspected he’d never again be as funny as he was on those nights at the Carlton Terrace. Happily I was wrong. Maybe our nights in Cannes had been fueled by alcohol, but his richly refined sense of humour and his magical sense of timing were fueled solely by his unique talent and his irrefutable skill as a superb storyteller.

They’re all gone now. Dusty, Roger, Billy. Gone, but not forgotten.

All the links in this blog today are kinda special, but here’s the most special one. This is a link to Roger’s tribute to Billy. Read it and, well, laugh. Go ahead. Laugh out loud. We certainly did. And some of us still are.

Here’s (still) looking at you, kid.

 *****************

World Global International Home Office

Dear Lord Lew,
All arrangements are in order for
the maiden voyage of your lordship’s yacht.
I have been successful in inviting the top film
critics of England and America to join you.
They are eager to learn about
your legendary show business career.
As of today, I have confirmations from
Kathleen Carroll and Rex Reed of the New York Daily
News, Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles
Times, George Anthony of the Toronto Sun,
Alexander Walker of the London Evening
Standard, Richard and Mary Corliss of Time
magazine, Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice,
Molly Haskell of Vogue, and Roger Ebert of the
Chicago Sun-Times. I have told them to keep
tomorrow morning free for embarkation.
Please have your office send cars
to the front entrance of the Majestic at about 10.”

Billy Baxter

-/-

 

What can I say about Jann Arden’s new memoir? As Ms A. might say, “I can’t really describe it but I’ll try”

“Life will shoot you out of a cannon where you want it or not. The universe is a cannon and we are the balls.”

Okay, I admit it. My copy of Jann Arden’s memoir, Falling Backwards, is a bit of a mess. But at least I have an almost acceptable excuse. As I started to read it I started turning down the top right hand corner of a few pages which contained remarks that made me laugh out loud. And then I turned down the corners of a few more pages. And one or two more. And now that I’ve finished the book it looks like it’s been chewed up by the Arden family attack dog, Aquarius. Who, as Ms Arden properly points out, was not really a guard dog, especially since he “licked complete strangers like they were cheeseburgers.” ‘Nuff said.

Arden’s memoir is a fascinating flashback to a childhood unlike yours and mine, because all her experiences are recreated through the uniquely humourous filter of her mind. And her considerable gifts as a writer only serve to make Falling Backwards more magical. She is still haunted by memories of childhood “and its boundless, heartless atrocities.” She flashes on piles of dead birds and gophers, the prey she stalked with neighborhood buddies Leonard and Dale. “I see their little faces, I really do, and am instantly ashamed.” She says she would not have wanted to be a gopher or a magpie between 1971 and 1976 in Springbank, Alberta. Nor, she assures you, would you.

As a child she was also an aspiring arsonist. One time she dropped about five hundred lit wooden matches down a heating vent one at a time; “I just liked striking the matches and seeing them burn. You could strike them on anything: a zipper, your two front teeth, your Levi’s jeans back pocket, the wall, the floor, your forehead. Any surface could light an Eddylite match.”

She and the two brothers she adored attended a rural school where “if you came to school and didn’t smell like some farm animal, you were considered weird.” And her parents literally built the family house, a process that kept them living in a trailer during a long. hard Canadian winter. How cold is winter in rural Alberta? “You can freeze your nose off in about three minutes if you’re not careful. I know a lot of people without a nose – they just have the nostril holes. [Okay, no I don't.]“

When her father was unable to deal with his alcoholism, her mother told him he had to leave. He did. To keep the family afloat her mother took a number of odd jobs, including a job sorting eggs at a chicken farm. “When the wind blew in the right direction, the smell of chicken shit was so bad it could almost peel the red paint off a barn. I can’t really describe it but I’ll try; if you put a loaded diaper in a pot of boiling sock juice with goat balls you’d be about halfway there.”

Years later her mother and father, now reunited, opened a video store, where Arden remembers working long hours. “My mother tells me I was the worst employee they ever hired. I probably was.” She watched eighteen hundred movies the first year she worked there. “I was like Roger Ebert on crack.”

Falling Backwards is also a revealing history of the food and drink she consumed in her formative years. She and her brothers Duray and Patrick were raised on Crock-Pot dinners. Pop Shoppe soda, Old Dutch salt and vinegar chips, and Wagon Wheels. “A Wagon Wheel,” she informs the uninitiated, “is a godawful chocolate-covered cookie thing filled with marshmallow. We ate them by the millions even though they taste like used sports socks.” Her mother sent them to school with sandwiches. “We went through nine gallons of Cheez Whiz every week, I’m sure. I can’t wait to see what the long-term health effects of that will be.” But then cooking was not her mother’s strong suit. “We had some very well-done spaghetti over the years. A single noodle was usually about an inch in diameter. Italian folks would have lit themselves on fire if they’d had to eat my mother’s pasta.”

She saw what alcohol could do to her father and her older brother Duray. “It was almost a given that there would be confrontation if drinking was involved; you cannot reason with rum.” But that didn’t stop her from skipping math class to drink Lonesome Charlie by the river. “Lonesome Charlie,” she explains, “was a very cheap, incredibly crappy pink wine that was basically a headache in a bottle but was also sweet and bubbly and therefore very popular.”

Aside from some mesmerizing family dynamics and her own struggle to find herself, what makes Falling Backwards so memorable is Arden’s dry western wit — “One year I got jumper cables in my stocking for Christmas. It doesn’t get more Canadian than that” — and her consistently engaging use of language, whether she’s sharing her first experience with Grand Marnier (“That stuff could give a headache to a tree”) or describing a character named Colette,  “a real firecracker” who “could talk the leg off the lamb of God.”

The first song she ever wrote, Paradise, was about her parents dying. Adds Arden: “I set the bar very high early in my career to write the most depressing songs possible.” Eight albums, eight Juno Awards and 17 top-ten singles later, Arden is living proof that “You are not what you did, but what you will do.” In Falling Backwards she revisits her triumphs and tragedies without fanfare, making her personal defeats all the more touching, until our eyes mist over. But after surviving a unique detox regimen, which really must be read to be believed, she emerges dry-eyed and strong and ready for her next tour.

“The things we choose to remember,” she notes, “say a heck of a lot about us.”

Wow. You can say that again.

Jann goes Disney, Shia beefs up, Roger starts his own club, and Ron and Ms. Atwood make a documentary

SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY: SuperWarbler Jann Arden has been amusing her 12,000 Twitter followers this week with daily dispatches from Disney World, where she seems to have developed a major crush on daffy comedy duo Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders. (Go

LEBEOUF: working out?

figure!) … my hero Liz Smith suspects that Wall Street II star Shia LeBeouf is currently boeufing-up for a remake of American Gigolo, with original Gigolo Richard Gere cast as the male madam who books LeBoeuf’s sexual assignations. (Now that’s comedy!!) editor Trena White wraps up a six-year stint at McClelland & Stewart tomorrow. White is moving back to Vancouver, where she grew up, to join Douglas & McIntyre as an acquiring editor … meanwhile, it’s official: Ken Finkleman’s new novel, Noah’s Turn, is now set to launch in August … and Roger Ebert has launched his own cyber club, with membership benefits, to help offset the cost of his ambitious and prolific web production. He also explains why in one of his tirelessly engaging Journal entries, I Wonder If This Will Work. To learn more about The Ebert Club, click here. To enjoy his Journal entry, click here — and enjoy!

THE YEAR OF THE ATWOOD: Entrepreneurial novelist Margaret Atwood is working with documentary master Ron Mann (“the guy with the hair that matches mine!”) on a

MANN & ATWOOD: it's their Year

screen version of her tour promoting her current bestseller Year Of The Flood. “It’s called In the Wake of the Flood. The film is due to launch on August 5 in Toronto to coincide with the paperback publication of the book. Then it will go around the world to film festivals, literary festivals, environmental festivals, and fundraising events. We did the Year of the Flood tour as an awareness-raiser and fundraiser, primarily for birds, and In the Wake of the Flood both documents the experience and continues the effort.”

SHOOTING STARS: Sometimes funny-man Will Ferrell is set to star in Everything Must Go, a new film by writer-director Dan Rush. Ferrell will reportedly play a relapsed alcoholic

RIVERS: new season

who loses his job and his wife and decides to live on his front lawn while selling all of his belongings … William Hurt and Isabella Rossellini will star in French director Julie GavrasLate Bloomers, about an aging couple who react to their senior status in different ways. (Shouldn’t that be Late Zoomers? Oh well) The stellar cast also features Simon Callow and legendary Ab Fab scene-stealer Joanna Lumley (or Dame Joanna and Sir Simon, if they care to pull rank)  … and Joan Rivers is shooting her second season of How’d You Get So Rich for a May 5 re-launch on TV Land. How rich are her new finds? “One guy is sooooo rich,” she reports, “that when his computer breaks, Bill Gates comes to fix it!”

P.S.: The doc that rocked Sundance this year, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work, is set for Hot Docs screenings on May 2 & May 3. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

OK GO: ingenious

SEE/HEAR: The L.A.-based OK Go, a rock band originally from Chicago, keeps creating amazing videos – considerably more amazing, in fact, than their appealing ear-candy music. They’ve become an integral part of new millennium YouTube culture and won a 2007 Grammy for their stellar treadmill dance video, Here It Goes Again, which still evokes happy memories of the kind of ingenuity Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly espoused in their heydays at MGM. Their current monster video hit,This Too Shall Pass, has been viewed by more than 10 million internet users so far. Or maybe it’s only two million users who can’t resist watching it five times. Wondering what all the fuss is about? Just click on the song titles above and that mystery will be solved. Enjoy!

TOMORROW:

More hats ‘n’ horns for birthday boy Stephen Sondheim.

-/-


George gets Oprah, Kim gets a sidewalk star and Toronto gets one heaping helping of Hollywood

STARS IN OUR EYES: What a weekend for celebrity-spotting in Our Town.  In addition to Penelope Cruz, Colin Farrell, Jeff Bridges, Jason Bateman, Hugh Hefner, Drew Barrymore, Ewan McGregor (who walked the red

McGREGOR: took flight

McGREGOR: took flight

carpet, then dashed to Pearson International to catch a flight) and too many more to mention here, Anne Murray hosted the stars receiving Walk Of Fame honours on Saturday night at the Four Seasons Centre. New sidewalk star owner Kim Cattrall, back in New York this morning shooting Sex And The City 2, also sparkled at George Christy’s 25th annual filmfest family reunion at the Four Seasons, as did Michael Caine, Rachel Ward & Bryan Brown, Norman Jewison, Michael Sheen, Rex Reed, novelists Ron Base & Shinan Govani, Seamus O’Regan, Chaz & Roger Ebert, Ben Mulroney and An Education scene-stealer Carey Mulligan, who flew to Manhattan yesterday to start shooting Wall Street 2 with Michael

CATTRALL: Back to Manhattan

CATTRALL: Back to Manhattan

Douglas. A few blocks away at Il Fornello TIFF co-founder Bill Marshall & Sari Ruda hosted their annual All-Star Lunch for directors Fred Schepisi, Patricia Rozema and Don Shebib, satirist Rick Miller, filmfest veteran Tony Watt, columnist Martin Knelman, ex-Toronto mayors David Crombie & Art Eggleton and many more. Veteran filmfest programmer Hannah Fisher and producers Pierre Sarrazin & Suzette Couture were among the guests soaking up the sun and snacks at Tonya Lee Williams’ lively networking reception at The Pilot for her ReelWorld Indie Lounge. And producer Laszlo

CLOONEY: with Oprah

CLOONEY: with Oprah

Barna and dozens of TIFF participants showed up to shmooze at the Canadian Film Centre soiree hosted by CFC chief Slawko Klymkiw at The Spoke Club.

Biggest crowd-pleasers of the weekend: George Clooney, who greeted cheering fans Friday night at the premiere of The Men Who Stare At Goats and then showed up with Oprah Winfrey on his arm for the Saturday screening of Jason Reitman’s crowd-pleasing Up In The Air. (My spies tell me Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking star Aaron Eckhart also was there. Who knew?) La Wnfrey herself drew thunderous applause last night at the premiere of Precious, as did Mariah Carey. But it was Michael Caine who earned the most affectionate TIFF standing ovations yesterday in his stellar Q&A session with Canada A.M. stalwart Seamus O’Regan.

TIFF TALK: TIFF visitor Tilda Swinton reportedly wants to star in a new screen version of Mame, more along the lines of stage & screen Mame Rosalind Russell than movie musical Mame Lucille Ball … popular music-makers Terri

SWINTON: new Mame?

SWINTON: new Mame?

Clark and Hawksley Workmen are among the entertainers appearing this week at the Hard Rock Café as part of the fifth annual TIFF-related Canadian Music Café …  Canuck luminaries ranging from Christopher Plummer, Norman Jewison and David Cronenberg to Margaret Atwood, Oscar Peterson and Louise Pitre are currently showcased in a new 30-year retrospective by photographer Edward Gajdel at the o born contemporary gallery on Yonge street … Bobby Del Rio is living the Actor’s Dream. He’s in every single scene of Mio Adilman’s short TIFF film Unlocked … and organizers of the Dubai International Film Festival pulled the plug on tonight’s planned Park Hyatt cocktail soiree. All in all, not Dubai’s best year for public relations. Maybe all the headline-grabbing fuss about the TIFF salute to Tel Aviv scared them off?

-/-

How good was this Oscar legend? Well, try as he might, even Roger Ebert couldn’t catch him acting

“All the real motion picture people have always made family pictures. But the downbeats and the so-called intelligentsia got in when the government stupidly split up the production companies and the theaters. The old giants — Mayer,

WAYNE: with his Oscar presenter Barbra Streisand

WAYNE: with his Oscar presenter Barbra Streisand

Thalberg, even Harry Cohn, despite the fact that personally I couldn’t stand him — were good for this industry. Now the goddamned stock manipulators have taken over. They don’t know a goddamned thing about making movies. They make something dirty, and it makes money, and they say, ‘Jesus, let’s make one a little dirtier, maybe it’ll make more money.’ And now even the bankers are getting their noses into it.”

The speaker? John Wayne, vintage ’76, in Roger Ebert’s wonderful appreciation of the American screen legend commemorating the 30th (!!!) anniversary of his death last week.

“He wasn’t a drunk,” Ebert writes, “but he didn’t shy clear of the stuff.”

“Tequila,” Wayne told Ebert, “makes your head hurt. Not from your hangover. From falling over and hitting your head.”

EBERT: appreciation

EBERT: appreciation

“What people didn’t understand,” Ebert notes, “is that he could be very funny.”

But then, perhaps Ebert’s powers of perception have never been so acute and, accordingly, so astute, as they are now.

“Why did he become, and remain, not only a star but an icon?” he muses. “He was uncommonly attractive in face and presence. He was utterly without affectation. He was at home. He could talk to anyone. You couldn’t catch him acting. He was lucky to start early, in the mid-1920s, and become at ease on camera even before his first speaking role. He sounded how he looked. He was a small-town Iowa boy, a college football player. He worked with great directors. He listened to them. He wasn’t a sex symbol. He didn’t perform, he embodied.”

For more of Ebert’s remarkable tribute to Duke Wayne, as well as the responses of his unusually well-versed reader-contributors, click here.

SMITH & FRIEND: Has she seen his new website?

SMITH & FRIEND: renovated website

QUOTABLE QUOTES: “If you want to hire a great salesman, look for an ugly guy with a beautiful wife.”

The speaker? Enignmatic lady-killer Red Green (a.k.a. brilliant comic actor and saga-spinner Steve Smith,) celebrating his debut as a tweeter on Twitter.

P.S.: Did you know that construction has been completed on the redgreen.com website?”Check it out,” says Steve — “but you might want to keep your hardhat on and watch out for damp areas.”

FELICITATIONS, L’OREAL! Bilingual beauty Jane Fonda was in Paris last week filming commercials for L’Oreal Paris in French and English. L’Oreal is celebrating its 100th birthday – hey, they must be doing something right — “and this is my 5th year as brand ambassador for women over 65,” she says proudly.

FONDA: L'Oreal  birthday girl

FONDA: L'Oreal birthday girl

La Fonda admits that although she’s addicted to L’Oreal’s Age Perfect Pro-Calcium creams, she was actually filming commercials for a new line of skin cream that will be launched in 2010. “I understand that the company doesn’t like to brag about itself.” she adds, “but I want people to know that #1 they don’t do animal testing, #2 they are investing in the development of reconstituted (synthetic) skin for use in testing, and #3 they just won an environmental award for their corporate ethics (reduced water use and waste dumping and reduced use of plastics).”

FISHER: bumper sticker

FISHER: bumper sticker

At times she imagines her old acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, looking down and saying, “So Jane, it’s come to this!” But, she says, there’s a certain discipline to acting in a commercial. “You must leave behind all questions of motivation and just do what they ask. Little minute details take on huge importance–how I hold the match to light the candle; the way I set the pot of cream down on the table.

“I wish right now I had Carrie Fisher’s gift for le bon mot. She’d have such a hilarious way of describing commercial-style acting. She just wrote me and said she’d written a bumper sticker: ‘Celebrity is just obscurity biding its time.’

“For me it becomes possible,” she says, “because I really believe in the product.”

SUTHERLAND: epic thriller

SUTHERLAND: epic thriller

COMING NEXT YEAR TO A TV MOVIE NETWORK NEAR YOU: Lots of good stuff, I’m happy to report. Highlights for me include Bloodletting, an eight-part drama series based on Vincent Lam’s best-seller Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, which starts production at the end if the month in Toronto and Hamilton; The Pillars of the Earth, an eight-part limited drama series based on Ken Follett’s bestselling epic novel, with a stellar international cast headed by Donald Sutherland and Ian (Deadwood) McShaneLiving In Your Car, a new half-hour comedy series from This Is Wonderland creators George F. Walker, Dani Romain and Joseph Kay, set to begin filming in September with director David Steinberg at the helm; and Fakers, a TV movie about three apparently ordinary teenagers from one of Canada’s most elite schools who created a major counterfeiting operation under the noses of their teachers and parents.

Also intriguing: A four-hour mini-series “re-imagining” of the intriguing comic strip hero Phantom with an equally intriguing cast which includes the always intriguing Isabella Rossellini.

Sounds promising.

-/-