The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Ebertfest celebrates 25 years with gripping ‘Star 80’ as opening night showcase

Damini Rana
The statue of Roger Ebert outside the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign during Ebertfest on April 17.

Crowds congregated outside of the Virginia Theatre in Champaign for the 25th anniversary of Ebertfest last Wednesday.

The biographical drama “Star 80,” directed by multi-hyphenate Bob Fosse, was chosen as the festival opener. The movie celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.

Lead actors Eric Roberts and Mariel Hemingway were scheduled to appear at a panel discussion and Q&A after the showing, but Hemingway was unable to attend. It would have been the actors’ first reunion since the film’s release.

The event started with Tracy Sulkin, dean of the College of Media at the University, mentioning film critic, Urbana native and Illinois graduate Roger Ebert’s influence and his lifelong connection with the University and the wider Champaign-Urbana community. 

Welcomed by applause, Chaz Ebert, Roger Ebert’s wife and current festival producer and host, gave an introductory speech. A decade after Roger’s passing, Chaz acknowledged his physical absence. 

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This weekend, at some point, make yourself known because this is the 25th anniversary of the Ebert Festival,” Chaz Ebert said, addressing her late husband.

In his review, Roger Ebert called “Star 80” Fosse’s “most despairing film.” The film — based on the article “Death of a Playmate” by Teresa Carpenter — deals with the real murder of Playboy model Dorothy Stratten by her husband, Paul Snider. Four decades after its release, it has only grown in significance.

During his opening remarks, Roberts commented on the context of the film and how it has changed over time.

“This was 35 years before the #MeToo movement,” Roberts said. “And sadly, if you look deeper in this world, you see that underneath the satin was something very tough, rough.”

He also shared a special detail about the movie’s production — every death in the film was shot at the actual location where the real deaths occurred.

Along with actors and the general public of cinephiles, University students were also in attendance.

Aylin Salgado, freshman in Media, shared her experience of being closely involved with the festival’s opening day.

As a MACS student, they gave us the opportunity of turning one of our projects into a trailer or a tribute video for the 25th anniversary,” Salgado said. “Whichever video they thought stood out amongst the rest would end up being the one that would be presented tonight, and my video was the one selected.” 

“Star 80,” although an incredibly well-produced film, can be a difficult watch for some viewers, as it deals with the topic of sexual assault.

In the after-show panel discussion, Slate magazine film critic Dana Stevens commented on the film’s relevance today.

As I was saying to some other critics here today, I was sort of scared to see it again, like what if it doesn’t hold up or what if now it seems sort of exploited or abusive in a way that I didn’t see then,” Stevens said. “And as (Roberts) said before, the film is from the pre-#MeToo era when things read differently, but boy, does it hold up.”

Audience members Megan Cruz  — a pop culture commentator, writer and producer — and Bobbi Miller — a culture critic and host of “The Afternoon Special Podcast” — who both participated in this year’s Ebert Symposium, shared their thoughts on the heavy subject matter.

It’s hard to use a word like, ‘Oh, that was good because of what happens in it,’ so I’ve just been opting to say it was well-made,” Miller said. “But the movie and the story are obviously tragic and depressing and maddening.”

One highlight was Hemingway’s attentive performance of Stratten, a particularly challenging feat given the sensitive subject and Stratten’s status as a real historical figure.

While Dorothy is portrayed as a very likable character and I feel like she’s portrayed with care I do feel like it’s still… I’m struggling with my own thoughts of whether I fall on the side of whether it’s exploitative or not,” Cruz said.

Many members of the film community were present in the audience for this special opening night, the 25th anniversary. Among them was Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune, who is currently working with the Ebert Fellows from the College of Media at the University. 

It’s great,” Phillips said. “It’s some of the most committed, open-minded film audiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of joining. I love it.”


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