My hero.

From the number of times this story turned up in my Facebook feed yesterday I have to assume everyone’s seen it by now, but not all of you stay online all day, so what the hell. It’s about Roger Ebert, and what his life is like now that he’s lost the ability to speak, eat and drink. (He lost his jaw to cancer four years ago, and reconstructive surgery has been one failure after another.)

Ebert posed for a picture; with his imperfectly fixed face, that requires no small amount of courage in and of itself. I’m glad he did, not just because it’s better to show one’s broken face than to hide it, but because even a face that’s half-gone can still show the man within. Look at the eyes, squinched a little in what looks like merriment, although you can’t say for sure at first glance — the mouth has been shaped by surgeons into a simulacrum of a smile, and maybe that’s what leads your impression. But once you read the story, you know: This is a man who smiles, who still smiles, who in fact seems to be smiling much of the time. He’s angered not by the fate of his physical body, but by the same things he was angered by before, that anger us all — petty bullshit, money-grubbing, spotty internet service.

There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.

I came late to my appreciation of Ebert. I was a Siskel partisan, once upon a time. Siskel was like me — snooty, irritable, a fan of Art. Ebert, the tabloid critic, was more of the hoi polloi, giving three and a half stars to action movies, space epics and other crap. It was a while before I realized he was as difficult to please as any discerning arbiter, but he knew enough about movies and why people see them to judge them as individuals. “Con Air” is not “Citizen Kane,” but he didn’t see any reason to rub anyone’s nose in it if they preferred action to Orson Welles. Mostly, I was in awe of his productivity. It’s pretty common — or was — for large newspapers to have an A critic and a B critic, the latter of whom was sometimes a freelancer. The A critic does the big-movie reviews and most of the related stories, roundups and the like, while the B critic sweeps up behind him or her, or just lightens the load. It’s not unusual for half a dozen movies to open on a summer weekend, ranging from blockbusters to art-house fare, and that’s a lot of stuff to see, consider and review in a week. Five years ago, I changed planes in Chicago on a Friday and picked up a Sun-Times. Ebert had bylines on six reviews, and I believe they covered that range of ambition. His take on the barrel-bottom straight-to-video entry was as considered, and as respectful, as his thoughts on the $200 million tentpole playing in all the multiplexes.

Respectful doesn’t mean boot-licking, by the way. Like my old screenwriting teacher Terry, who was also a critic, he walks into every film expecting to enjoy himself. (That’s what the audience does, after all; why would you pay eight bucks to be punished?) To the extent that the film fulfills or disappoints that expectation is what he bases his reviews on. It seems like a small thing. It isn’t. You might think you’re a movie fan, but imagine what it would be like to be required to see everything, and then write about it afterward, to have to form an opinion, support the opinion, and then present it to a general audience in a more stylish way than merely saying whether it was awesome or sucked.

Now imagine doing it for 40 years or so, never losing your enthusiasm, and in fact adding to your workload with extra assignments like his Great Movies series (which began as a Sunday column, swapped off every other week with the music critic, who wrote about the Great Albums), and the TV show, and the teaching gigs, and the film-festival work, and all the rest of it.

Now add cancer and facial mutilation, the literal loss of your voice. Tell me how you feel about it then.

The fact Ebert is still at work in any capacity, much less at full speed, is nothing short of a miracle. His last extended leave, when he nearly died, he missed months of movies. When he came back, he resumed his old blistering pace, and then watched the movies he’d missed, a few at a time, writing reviews of them, so that the record would be complete. I think he knows what his opinion means to the moviegoing public. I don’t see a lot of movies in theaters, but I try to catch up with the bigs eventually, and I never feel like I’ve watched it all the way until I’ve opened the laptop afterward to see what Roger thought of it.

Lord knows he’s not perfect. I disagree with him on many films, and his fondness for Spike Lee will always come between us. But in every other way — expertise, attitude, practice — he is nothing short of a hero.

Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it.

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

Years ago, I was watching the cultural kerfuffle over “The Passion of the Christ,” probably on Amy Welborn’s blog, because that was the sort of thing she wrote about a lot, back then. Ebert gave the film four stars, but the review is hardly worshipful, and he states outright that “it is the most violent movie I have ever seen.” I mentioned this review somewhere in her comments sections, and someone else retorted, Roger Ebert is an old man and he’s dying. His opinion no longer matters, or words to that effect. This was before his illness had taken its most serious tolls (he’s fought it for years), but I was amazed by not only the cruelty of that remark, but its utter ignorance. Roger Ebert’s opinion not only still matters, it will matter for a long time after he’s gone. If that isn’t the best epitaph a writer can hope for, I don’t know what is.

Posted at 10:33 am in Media, Movies |

34 responses to “My hero.”

  1. KLG said on February 17, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Thank you for a wonderful piece, Nancy.

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  2. James Moehrke said on February 17, 2010 at 10:48 am

    I’ve been following Ebert on Twitter for a couple of months now, and the man is all over the place, writing all day on a wide variety of topics. He’s amazing.

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  3. brian stouder said on February 17, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Well, only half way through the week and we have explored bookends within the world of professional writing: joyless, soul-less ‘writing’ by such as Sowell; and vibrant engaged and passionate expositions and essays by Ebert.

    The one constant is the not-to-be-missed musings of the proprietress hereabouts, Ms Nall

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  4. Jeff Borden said on February 17, 2010 at 11:17 am

    This is a lovely essay and I agree with every word. Roger Ebert has never enjoyed the worship of the intellectual film buff that Pauline Kael inspired, but he may be the fairest film critic in the land for his ability to take every film on its own terms. He’s also unafraid to confront earlier judgments.

    We recently had to write about a film that had significant meaning for us in my graduate school class, so I chose “Cool Hand Luke.” We had to include movie reviews. In his initial review of the 1967 film, Ebert largely concentrates on how Luke Jackson is the latest in a line of “anti hero” characters played by Paul Newman and comments on the famous scene where Luke eats 50 hard-boiled eggs, which he sees as a humorous scene. Revisiting the film in 2008 for his Great Movies project, Ebert eviscerates his own original review, admitting he did not bring the right spirit of pessimism to the film. He also notes that the egg-eating scene is now virtually unwatchable to him because it is clear that Luke is in agony as he downs egg after egg.

    I don’t recall Pauline Kael ever revisiting any of her reviews or reevaluating the work of those she pilloried in print. (Kael had a particular loathing for Clint Eastwood, for example, who has turned out to be one of America’s finest directors.)

    There will never be another Ebert. Not only is there no one out there who is so devoted to films they will see ever release, but growing numbers of papers don’t even bother with a film critic any more.

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  5. MarkH said on February 17, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Well said, Nancy, nothing was left out.

    Jeff B., Cool Hand Luke is one of those movies that drives my wife nuts, because I can watch it over and over again, always finding something new, and as you suggest, seeing it differently as I get older. Nothing wrong with a reviewer revisiting his work.

    Ebert, a hero indeed.

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  6. Jenine said on February 17, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Ebert’s delight with movies is what makes his reviews always worth reading. He loves the medium. I don’t always agree with him but I know I will get something from reading his reviews. It’s very comforting how he has kept his “voice” after all the illness and surgeries. What a wise one.

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  7. coozledad said on February 17, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Ebert’s the only public person I know of who’s called for Rush Limbaugh to be horsewhipped through the streets. It’s not a unique suggestion, but it appears to be one no one else has the guts to make in print. Dick Cavett is similar in that he’s not afraid to point out Sarah Palin should have just gotten that job at Stuckey’s.
    I always wondered if Siskel and Ebert’s joint takedown of Dune was the inspiration behind MST 3000.

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  8. Kevin Knuth said on February 17, 2010 at 11:35 am

    99 times out of 100 I agree with Ebert! Though I try to see a movie BEFORE I read his reviews- don’t want to spoil the plot!

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  9. Julie Robinson said on February 17, 2010 at 11:39 am

    And how about his Steak ‘n Shake musings?

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  10. brian stouder said on February 17, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    the famous scene where Luke eats 50 hard-boiled eggs, which he sees as a humor­ous scene. Revis­it­ing the film in 2008 for his Great Movies project, Ebert evis­cer­ates his own orig­i­nal review, admit­ting he did not bring the right spirit of pes­simism to the film. He also notes that the egg-eating scene is now vir­tu­ally unwatch­able to him because it is clear that Luke is in agony as he downs egg after egg.

    See – this is the magic that Siskel & Ebert always captured. I’d argue that that scene WAS humorous, and it was intended to be. Comedy almost always is simply a half note brighter than drama; loveable losers like Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin are always in some sort of agony. This points to a critical property that art has: that it can mean very different things to different viewers – and even a singular viewer over time will see different things.

    I’m not a huge movie-review reader, but (for example) if I see a movie that was supposed to be good, but that I really disliked (No Country for Old Men leaps to mind), then I’ll go looking for Ebert, to see what I missed

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  11. MarkH said on February 17, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Hoosiers: For real? S’up with this?

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  12. Scout said on February 17, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Nancy, this essay left me with a little lump in my throat. Not a bad epitaph either.

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  13. bria stouder said on February 17, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Mark – forget a chicken in every pot; for us Hoosiers it’s Little Pink Houses for You and Me, baby

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  14. Sue said on February 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Epitaph? Don’t you need to be gone before you get an epitaph? We might want to wait on the epitaph discussion in case we get an all-caps response in the comments.

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  15. alex said on February 17, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Looks like the field of Republicans vying for Souder’s seat just widened:

    I’m guessing this guy’s a moderate who sees Souder as vulnerable. Souder can no longer count on the crackpot conservative vote, which is likely to be divided between himself and the two teabaggers who are running.

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  16. Julie Robinson said on February 17, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Mellencamp couldn’t possibly be as horrible a choice as Dan Coats. And I just might pick up an “R” ballot* in the primary if there’s a viable alternative to Souder. It wouldn’t be the first time.

    *Hoosiers do not have to declare a party affiliation when registering to vote. You tell the election workers which primary you are voting in, and they hand you a slip of paper that says “R” or “D”, which you then hand to the person setting up your voting machine.

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  17. Deborah said on February 17, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    I enjoyed Siskel and Ebert’s TV show but I never read many of Ebert’s movie reviews previously. If I see a puzzling movie I’ll look up what he had to say about it. But I read his journal on-line religiously now. I love it when he reminisces about travels and experiences from his past. And I like that he stays with the thread and elaborates in comments (Nancy obviously does that too, which makes these comments even more interesting). My husband just finished reading Ebert’s book about Scorcese, which he said was excellent.

    Oh, and my husband also claims that his sister claims that she dated Roger briefly when she was a student at the University of Illinois.

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  18. Jolene said on February 17, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Ebert’s recent blog posts reveal both why he is such a good critic and, perhaps, how he has managed to remain sane, engaged, and productive in the face of disabilities that most of us would find intolerable. He notices everything, and, beyond noticing, he savors the details of his experiences in a way that is both sensual and sophisticated, both small-town Illinois kid and worldly sophisticate.

    His posts recalling dining, making out in cars (or wherever), and his early stays in London are treasures of description and the attendant emotions. Just really wonderful, intimate writing. I worry, though, that he is reviewing all these experiences with a view toward dying. I sometimes have the sense that he’s going through everything in his mental files one last time, which wouldn’t be so odd given his circumstances, but I don’t want his writing to end. I guess we can be glad he’s had a rich life and, having noticed everything, has a lot to write about before he checks out.

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  19. baldheadeddork said on February 17, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Nance – I’ve been aware of Ebert for most of my life, but I found his writing through you. Thank you for that, and this.

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  20. moe99 said on February 17, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    As someone who has lost most of her voice in the past 6 months due to cancer and as someone who has relied on her voice to practice law and to sing in choir, I put Roger Ebert on the top of my list of heroes. Just going out and doing what needs to be done, rather than succumbing to fear and/or anger. He does this all with such humility and grace that I have nothing to complain about.

    Thank you for this good and well written reminder of just how important he is.

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  21. paddyo' said on February 17, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Ebert’s blog/diary/whatever-you-call-it writing in recent years (I think it coincides also with his loss of his literal voice, though obviously not his “voice”) has been a revelation. The piece he wrote last year on the bad old days of Chicago newspaper bars (“A Bar on North Avenue” — )was breathtaking.

    I read the Esquire piece last night on recommendation of a friend — we were both blown away by Ebert, of course, but let’s also give credit to a fine, fine writing job by the author, particularly the passage, late in the piece, where Ebert blows his top, enraged over Disney’s deleting an important video link from something he wrote about his dear friend and foil Gene Siskel. How does he do it? He pounds out his ire into his laptop, in the same words, over and over, the typeface growing into boxcar-hed size and bigger until they grow off the screen. The writer distills this perfectly and describes it as if Ebert were shouting it out loud on a street corner. Sorry, I can’t quote the words verbatim because I can’t access that link from work. But trust me: Go to it and read it yourself. Brilliant.

    One more thing about Ebert:
    Most endearing to me is, the guy is a “movie reviewer,” not a “film critic.” OK, so maybe the latter is or was his title at the Sun-Times . . . but he doesn’t behave that way. No auteur attitude. He takes on all comers in the sweet science of cinema. Make-me-smile-and-entertain-me, he says — not sniff-sniff-this-is-beneath-me.

    Vox, and I mean VOX! populi, popcorn-and-Milk-Duds division.

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  22. Kirk said on February 17, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Thanks for that link, paddyo’. A mighty fine piece of work.

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  23. Bob (not Greene) said on February 17, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Jesus, Nancy, that was just a great post.

    I remember when Siskel and Ebert had their first show on Channel 11 in Chicago and they were both simply passionate about movies and had actual interesting arguments about the films and could back up their points of view intelligently. They could have a real disagreement and, yet, there they were week after week, year after year, still talking to each other. In a world (sounds like a movie trailer) where it outrage is endless and immediate and visceral hate rampant in response to every perceived slight on every conceivable subject, I pine for the days when intelligent people could have an intellectual, spirited argument and remain not only civil, but friends.

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  24. nancy said on February 17, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I like Ebert almost as much when he writes about things other than movies, which is why his blog is such a joy. And though I’ve quoted this before, allow me to wallow yet again in his slapdown of Sarah Palin, who reached her 40s before she got a passport:

    And how can you be her age and never have gone to Europe? My dad had died, my mom was working as a book-keeper and I had a job at the local newspaper when, at 19, I scraped together $240 for a charter flight to Europe. I had Arthur Frommer’s $5 a Day under my arm, started in London, even rented a Vespa and drove in the traffic of Rome. A few years later, I was able to send my mom, along with the $15 a Day book.

    You don’t need to be a pointy-headed elitist to travel abroad. You need curiosity and a hunger to see the world. What kind of a person (who has the money) arrives at the age of 44 and has only been out of the country once, on an official tour to Iraq? Sarah Palin’s travel record is that of a hopeless provincial.

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  25. Jeff Borden said on February 17, 2010 at 6:24 pm


    Here’s yet another reason why it is very difficult for me to consider supporting Republican candidates. The newly elected governor, Bob O’Donnell, issued an executive order today stripping protection from discrimination from gays and lesbians, reversing an order signed by the former Democratic governor, Tim Kaine.

    What the hell is it with the GOP and gays?

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  26. Kirk said on February 17, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Interestingly, the Republican hierarchy in Columbus — party officials, money-raisers, big donors, even a few officeholders — has included a number of gay people for years.

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  27. coozledad said on February 17, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    VA Governor admits to having sex with eight contortionists in steel tank full of octopi: Says “My faith is strong, and my wife has said she will continue to allow me to wear her Manolo Blahniks.”

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  28. Deborah said on February 17, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Wasn’t W like that too with his incuriousness regarding travel. I seem to remember that he also had not been abroad much before becoming president, if at all. I think they said he’d spent time in Mexico but not anywhere outside of the North American continent. Is that possible? For someone who came from the wealth and influence he had available that can just not be possible?

    I was 37 before I got to go to Europe because of my financial and family situation, I was married to a guy who hated to spend money on travel. I got divorced, worked in London for awhile and since then I try to travel abroad regularly. My husband now has the same wanderlust I do, so for that and a lot of other reasons we’re a much better fit.

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  29. Judith said on February 17, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Actually in Indiana when you ask for a ballot in a primary you are declaring you voted for more from that party in the last election. This is rarely enforced,(and relies on the word of the voter) and I think it should be eliminated. But a few voters were denied ballots in the last primary because of this. Rush Limbaugh was urging his listeners to vote for Hillary in the Democratic primary because he thought she would be easier to beat.

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  30. Kim said on February 17, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    You read this story about Ebert and you get a good, long look at the man whose experiences of late are so extraordinary. No voice, no taste, no food, not enough time – just words on a page, action on a screen, passion for the work and the love of a good woman. Nothing beats a story well-told.

    Our VA gov, btw, stepped in it several years ago when he was attorney general and ready to prosecute anyone who violated the state’s sex laws (aka crimes against nature) that prohibited oral sex. A former colleague famously asked the now-gov if his wife had ever serviced him in that way. McDonnell famously replied, “Not that I can recall.”

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  31. Deborah said on February 17, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Kim at #30: No voice, no taste, no food, not enough time — just words on a page, action on a screen, passion for the work and the love of a good woman. Nothing beats a story well-told.

    made me tear up.

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  32. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 17, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    Jolene, Ebert clears that up (from his perspective) in the most recent Journal entry — says he has as long a prognosis as any man his age, maybe better since his cholesterol levels are so good since he went on “nil by mouth” tube feeding.

    I’m almost as in awe of his equanimity about not eating as in respect to his calm acceptance of not speaking any more. Moe, the hardest part of the last two years has been the severe (to me) limitations on the use of my voice, which I’m so blessed by medical skill and good fortune to be getting back in pieces, steadily. I hope you get the same and better . . . but for Ebert to make such amusing light humor of his non-eating status — what a human being.

    And his review of “The Passion” shows he knows more theology, let alone more about theology, than most clergy of my acquaintance, liberal or conservative.

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  33. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 18, 2010 at 7:53 am

    The Ebert note on his “prognosis” (which is pretty far down in the comments):

    Ebert: Some people got the idea that I was dying, and trying to write what I could “in the time remaining.” Statistically I have as much time remaining as anyone my age. I appear to be cancer free, and apart from the obvious difficulties I’m in sturdy health. My cholesterol is sensational on this liquid diet.

    However, I think Chris Jones did an excellent job. I know what he had to work with and I see what he did with it, and I feel he can be proud of his work.

    You’re correct that a lot of people found the Journal. It was linked hither and yon, and I’ve had 67,000 uniques today, which is probably a lot of first-timers. I hope some of them were impressed that we maintain a civil tone here, which is rare in the cesspool of discussion boards.

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  34. Jen said on February 18, 2010 at 8:14 am

    I’ve loved and admired Roger Ebert since I started seeing movies regularly in high school, when I’d find his reviews online. I didn’t always agree with him – though, the older I get, the more I understand what he’s saying and the more I tend to agree with him. I’m so glad he continues to write through all of his medical problems, but I suppose that a passionate writer doesn’t really have much of choice.

    A couple years ago, I convinced my editor to let me write a movie review every week for the paper. While I’m not nearly as good as Ebert, he is my hero and my writing idol.

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