I was. After a fleeting thought that I’d lose sight in that eye, I realized I could still see, and the momentary burn sensation was gone. When I could focus, I saw that the man who sprang into action was none other than Roger Ebert. “Are you okay? Can you see?”, he continued asking, until I assured him I was and I could, and we eventually made our way back to the terrace to watch the end of the fireworks.
I didn’t meet Ron Howard at the “Far and Away” party, but recounting that story to him at the “Thirteen Lives” event enforced that, indeed, “people can be pretty darn wonderful when they want to be.” That night, the real star for me was Roger Ebert, a critic I watched with wide-eyed respect as a teen, one half of the team who brought “two thumbs up” into our film review lexicon. Many years later, upon Mr. Ebert’s passing, The American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival decided to name their Conference Center after Roger Ebert. A panel of esteemed critics from around the country assembled to talk about Roger’s legacy, and how he democratized film criticism for the masses. Afterward, steps away from the newly unveiled Roger Ebert Conference Center, everyone present assembled on the beach for a “500 thumbs up” salute to Mr. Ebert, thumbs raised to the same sky from which that ember had fallen into my eye.
It was at that photo-op that I met Mr. Ebert’s lovely life partner and widow, Chaz. Perhaps still a bit awestruck to speak to the wife of the man who saved my vision some 21 years earlier, I said to her, “I’m sure everyone comes to you with their Roger Ebert story. Can I tell you mine?” “Sure,” she graciously replied. I’d barely said anything – “Hotel du Cap, ‘Far and Away,’ fireworks, eye, water, flush” – when she touched my arm: “That was you?? I was standing right next to him! Are you okay?”
Yes, I am. Through Chaz, I thanked Roger again for his quick reaction. I thanked Chaz for continuing Roger’s legacy of kindness and humanity, and for her graciousness while still grieving the devastating loss of the world’s greatest film critic. I’m honored to have been brushed by his stardust. And thank you, Ron Howard, for setting the stage for this indelibly seared moment in my memory. People can be pretty darn wonderful when they want to be.
“The festival comes into focus”: This classic dispatch penned by Roger Ebert at Cannes 1980 contains indelible stories about his pal Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter.
“What Baxter has also figured out is that everyone at Cannes is a pirate and a cynic, and that the way to survive here is to make it clear upfront that you are prepared to be more aggressive, competitive and outrageous than they are. Other customers may tip more than Baxter at the bar of the Majestic Hotel where he holds his annual court but nobody tips more visibly or demands more service. The waiters here actually like Baxter; they can identify with his chutzpah much more than with the smarmy ingratiations of the Americans who are intimidated by Cannes and actually try to be nice to the waiters. Baxter thinks in terms of parables, and the other day he was telling one. One year here he introduced a young actress to the son of the board chairman of Philip Morris. ‘For three days,’ Billy explained, ‘this girl followed this kid around like she’s handcuffed to him. Then suddenly she disappears. She finds out his father runs Philip Morris. She thought he ran William Morris. William Morris is the show business agency. Being head of Philip Morris is about a hundred times a bigger deal – but not here. Here, they all wanna be famous.’”