Many notable scholars and cultural commentators have made invaluable contributions to film criticism but almost none of them had the kind of impact that Roger Ebert did. The first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for their work, Ebert shaped the public discourse around cinema with his equally influential TV partner Gene Siskel.
Through his insightful writings and his unbridled passion for cinema, Ebert touched the lives of many film fans around the world. In addition to his global readership, his contributions to film criticism also inspired other artists including the likes of Werner Herzog who considered Ebert to be “the good soldier of cinema” and even dedicated a film to the late critic.
Iconic actress Laura Dern was also among those who were moved by what Ebert had to say. In fact, she was so deeply touched that she decided to gift a historically significant artefact to the critic who later passed it onto someone else. That artefact was a box containing a jigsaw puzzle that was previously owned by Marilyn Monroe.
While appearing in Steve James’ 2014 documentary about Ebert titled Life Itself, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani recalled how Ebert had given him that iconic puzzle box along with a letter: “One time, I went to see Roger. He was kind of eager and bouncing to give me something. He gave me this letter, actually from Laura Dern.”
In Life Itself, Bahrani reads excerpts from the letter which explains how Dern was extremely emotional after the Sundance Tribute. That is why she gifted Ebert with Marilyn Monroe’s puzzle box that had been given to her by the legendary filmmaking pioneer Alfred Hitchcock. When Lee Strasberg passed away, the Strasberg family had given it to Dern.
A segment of the letter explained some of Dern’s though process behind the gift: “It was Marilyn Monroe’s, who collected puzzles, and it had been given to her by Alfred Hitchcock. That night at Sundance you inspired me about film and contribution and I wanted to pass along film and connection in some way. Thank you again.”
When Bahrani found out that Ebert wanted to pass it down to him, he immediately refused because he thought that it was too valuable of a present. However, he finally gave in when he heard what Ebert wanted him to do: “You’re going to accept the gift, because you have to one day give this to somebody else who deserves it.”