Roger Ebert: The Essential Man

Wednesday, April 27, 2022 3:42:18 PM

Roger Ebert: The Essential Man



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Siskel \u0026 Ebert - Best of 1995

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At the start of their walk around the pond, Ebert worries about falling on a small gravel incline. Chaz lets go of his hand. Later, she climbs on top of a big circular stone. Ebert raises his arms into the sky behind her. They head home and meet with the people from Comcast, who talk mostly to Chaz. Their Internet will be back soon, but probably not until tomorrow. Ebert then takes the elevator upstairs and drops into his chair.

As he reclines it slowly, the entire chair jumps somehow, one of its back legs thumping against the floor. It had been sitting on the charger for his iPhone, and now the charger is crushed. Ebert grabs his tray and laptop and taps out a few words before he presses a button and speakers come to life. The voice is called Alex, a voice with a generic American accent and a generic tone and no emotion. At first Ebert spoke with a voice called Lawrence, which had an English accent.

Ebert liked sounding English, because he is an Anglophile, and his English voice reminded him of those beautiful early summers when he would stop in London with Chaz on their way home after the annual chaos of Cannes. But the voice can be hard to decipher even without an English accent layered on top of it—it is given to eccentric pronunciations, especially of names and places—and so for the time being, Ebert has settled for generic instead.

Ebert is waiting for a Scottish company called CereProc to give him some of his former voice back. He found it on the Internet, where he spends a lot of his time. CereProc tailors text-to-speech software for voiceless customers so that they don't all have to sound like Stephen Hawking. They have catalog voices—Heather, Katherine, Sarah, and Sue—with regional Scottish accents, but they will also custom-build software for clients who had the foresight to record their voices at length before they lost them. Ebert spent all those years on TV, and he also recorded four or five DVD commentaries in crystal-clear digital audio.

The average English-speaking person will use about two thousand different words over the course of a given day. CereProc is mining Ebert's TV tapes and DVD commentaries for those words, and the words it cannot find, it will piece together syllable by syllable. When CereProc finishes its work, Roger Ebert won't sound exactly like Roger Ebert again, but he will sound more like him than Alex does. There might be moments, when he calls for Chaz from another room or tells her that he loves her and says goodnight—he's a night owl; she prefers mornings—when they both might be able to close their eyes and pretend that everything is as it was.

There are places where Ebert exists as the Ebert he remembers. In , when he was in the middle of his worst battles and wouldn't be able to make the trip to Champaign-Urbana for Ebertfest—really, his annual spring festival of films he just plain likes—he began writing an online journal. Reading it from its beginning is like watching an Aztec pyramid being built.

At first, it's just a vessel for him to apologize to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart's wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They're followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert's strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened. He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he'd rather write about anything other than movies.

The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost—more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn't exist had he kept his other voice. Now some of his entries have thousands of comments, each of which he vets personally and to which he will often respond.

It has become his life's work, building and maintaining this massive monument to written debate—argument is encouraged, so long as it's civil—and he spends several hours each night reclined in his chair, tending to his online oasis by lamplight. Out there, his voice is still his voice—not a reasonable facsimile of it, but his. He calls up a journal entry to elaborate, because it's more efficient and time is precious:.

When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be. He is a wonderful writer, and today he is producing the best work of his life. In he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer prize, but his TV fame saw most of his fans, at least those outside Chicago, forget that he was a writer if they ever did know. His Pulitzer still hangs in a frame in his book-lined office down the hall, behind a glass door that has the ebert company, ltd.

Even for Ebert, a prolific author—he wrote long features on Paul Newman, Groucho Marx, and Hugh Hefner's daughter, among others, for this magazine in the late s and early '70s and published dozens of books in addition to his reviews for the Sun-Times —the written word was eclipsed by the spoken word. He spent an entire day each week arguing with Gene Siskel and then Richard Roeper, and he became a regular on talk shows, and he shouted to crowds from red carpets. He lived his life through microphones.

But now everything he says must be written, either first on his laptop and funneled through speakers or, as he usually prefers, on some kind of paper. His new life is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch. So many words, so much writing—it's like a kind of explosion is taking place on the second floor of his brownstone. In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn't exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning. Even the simplest expressions take on higher power here.

Now his thumbs have become more than a trademark; they're an essential means for Ebert to communicate. He falls into a coughing fit, but he gives his thumbs-up, meaning he's okay. Thumbs-down would have meant he needed someone to call his full-time nurse, Millie, a spectral presence in the house. Millie has premonitions. She sees ghosts. Sometimes she wakes in the night screaming—so vivid are her dreams.

Ebert's dreams are happier. Never yet a dream where I can't talk, he writes on another Post-it note, peeling it off the top of the blue stack. Sometimes I discover—oh, I see! I CAN talk! I just forget to do it. In his dreams, his voice has never left. In his dreams, he can get out everything he didn't get out during his waking hours: the thoughts that get trapped in paperless corners, the jokes he wanted to tell, the nuanced stories he can't quite relate. In his dreams, he yells and chatters and whispers and exclaims. In his dreams, he's never had cancer. In his dreams, he is whole. These things come to us, they don't come from us, he writes about his cancer, about sickness, on another Post-it note. Dreams come from us. We have a habit of turning sentimental about celebrities who are struck down—Muhammad Ali, Christopher Reeve—transforming them into mystics; still, it's almost impossible to sit beside Roger Ebert, lifting blue Post-it notes from his silk fingertips, and not feel as though he's become something more than he was.

He has those hands. And his wide and expressive eyes, despite everything, are almost always smiling. 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. In fact, because he's missing sections of his jaw, and because he's lost some of the engineering behind his face, Ebert can't really do anything but smile. It really does take more muscles to frown, and he doesn't have those muscles anymore. His eyes will water and his face will go red—but if he opens his mouth, his bottom lip will sink most deeply in the middle, pulled down by the weight of his empty chin, and the corners of his upper lip will stay raised, frozen in place.

Even when he's really angry, his open smile mutes it: The top half of his face won't match the bottom half, but his smile is what most people will see first, and by instinct they will smile back. The only way Ebert can show someone he's mad is by writing in all caps on a Post-it note or turning up the volume on his speakers. Anger isn't as easy for him as it used to be. Now his anger rarely lasts long enough for him to write it down. There's a reception to celebrate the arrival of a new ownership group at the Chicago Sun-Times, which Ebert feared was doomed to close otherwise. Ebert doesn't have an office in the new newsroom the old one was torn down to make way for one of Donald Trump's glass towers , but so long as the newspaper exists, it's another one of those outlets through which he can pretend nothing has changed.

His column mug is an old one, taken after his first couple of surgeries but before he lost his jaw, and his work still dominates the arts section. A single copy of the paper might contain six of his reviews. He's excited about seeing everybody. Millie helps him get dressed, in a blue blazer with a red pocket square and black slippers. Most of his old clothes don't fit him anymore: "For meaningful weight loss," the voice says, "I recommend surgery and a liquid diet.

He and Chaz head south into the city; she drives, and he provides direction by pointing and knocking on the window. The reception is at a place that was called Riccardo's, around the corner from the Billy Goat. Reporters and editors used to stagger into the rival joints after filing rival stories from rival newsrooms. Riccardo's holds good memories for Ebert. But now it's something else—something called Phil Stefani's Rush, and after he and Chaz ease up to the curb and he shuffles inside, his shoulders slump a little with the loss of another vestige of old Chicago.

He won't last long at the reception, maybe thirty or forty minutes. The only chairs are wooden and straight-backed, and he tires quickly in a crowd. When he walks into the room of journalistic luminaries—Roeper, Lynn Sweet, Rick Telander—they turn toward him and burst into spontaneous applause. They know he's earned it, and they don't know even half of what it's taken him just to get into the room, just to be here tonight, but there's something sad about the wet-eyed recognition, too. He's confronted by elegies everywhere he goes. People take longer to say goodbye to him than they used to.

They fuss over him, and they linger around him, and they talk slowly to him. One woman at the party even writes him a note in his notepad, and Ebert has to point to his ears and roll his eyes. He would love nothing more than to be holding court in a corner of the room, telling stories about Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum and Russ Meyer who came to the Eberts' wedding accompanied by Melissa Mounds. Instead he's propped on a chair in the middle of the room like a swami, smiling and nodding and trying not to flinch when people pat him on the shoulder. He took his hardest hit not long ago. After Roeper announced his departure from At the Movies in —Disney wanted to revamp the show in a way that Roeper felt would damage it—Ebert disassociated himself from it, too, and he took his trademarked thumbs with him.

The end was not pretty, and the break was not clean. But because Disney was going to change the original balcony set as part of its makeover, it was agreed, Ebert thought, that the upholstered chairs and rails and undersized screen would be given to the Smithsonian and put on display. Ebert was excited by the idea. Then he went up to visit the old set one last time and found it broken up and stacked in a dumpster in an alley. After saying their goodbyes to his colleagues and to Riccardo's , Ebert and Chaz go out for dinner, to one of their favorite places, the University Club of Chicago. Hidden inside another skyscraper, there's a great Gothic room, all stone arches and stained glass.

The room is filled mostly with people with white hair—there has been a big push to find younger members to fill in the growing spaces in the membership ranks—and they nod and wave at him and Chaz. They're given a table in the middle of the room. Ebert silently declines all entreaties from the fussy waiters. Food arrives only for Chaz and a friend who joins them. Ebert writes them notes, tearing pages from his spiral notepad, tapping his fingers together for his words to be read aloud.

Everyone smiles and laughs about old stories. More and more, that's how Ebert lives these days, through memories, of what things used to feel like and sound like and taste like. When his friend suddenly apologizes for eating in front of him, for talking about the buttered scallops and how the cream and the fish and the wine combine to make a kind of delicate smoke, Ebert shakes his head. He begins to write and tears a note from the spiral. No, no, it reads. You're eating for me. Gene Siskel died eleven years ago, in February , from a brain tumor. He was fifty-three years old. He had suffered terrible headaches in those last several months, but he was private about his pain.

He didn't talk about being sick or how he felt or what he expected or hoped for. He was stoic and solitary and quiet in his death. Siskel and Ebert were both defined, for most of their adult lives, by comparative measures: the fat one, the bald one, the loud one, the skinny one. Siskel was also the careful one. He joked that Ebert's middle name was "Full Disclosure. Even at the end, when Siskel knew what was coming, he kept his secrets. He and Ebert never once spoke about his looming death. There are pictures of Siskel all over the brownstone—on the grand piano, in the kitchen, on bookshelves.

The biggest one is in the living room; Ebert can see it from his recliner. In almost all the pictures, Siskel and Ebert—never Ebert and Siskel—are standing together, shoulder to shoulder, smiling, two big thumbs-up. In the picture in the living room, they're also wearing tuxedos. All these years later, the top half of Ebert's face still registers sadness when Siskel's name comes up. His eyes well up behind his glasses, and for the first time, they overwhelm his smile. He begins to type into his computer, slowly, deliberately. He presses the button and the speakers light up. There's a long pause before he hits the button. Ebert presses the button again. Last February, to mark the tenth anniversary of Siskel's death, Ebert wrote an entry in his online journal called "Remembering Gene.

It is beautifully written, filled with stories about arguments, even pitched battles, but nearly every memory is tinged with love and humor. Ebert scrolls through each paragraph, his eyes brimming, the smile winning again. The first lousy balcony set had painted pop bottles for rail supports. Siskel had courtside tickets for the Bulls and thought Phil Jackson was a sage. His beautiful daughters, Cate and Callie, were the flower girls for the Eberts' wedding. And then comes the turn. Gene's first headache struck in the back of a limo on their way to be on Leno, which was broadcasting from Chicago. In front of the audience, Siskel could manage only to agree with everything Ebert said; they made it a gag. That night Siskel went to the Bulls game because they were in the playoffs, but the next day he underwent some tests.

Not long after that, he had surgery, but he never told anyone where he was going to have it. He came back and for a time he continued taping the show with Ebert. Siskel's nephew would help him to his seat on the set, but only after the set was cleared. Our eyes would meet, the voice reads from Ebert's journal, unspoken words were between us, but we never spoke openly about his problems or his prognosis. That's how he wanted it, and that was his right. Gene Siskel taped his last show, and within a week or two he was dead.

Ebert had lost half his identity. It never went anywhere, but we both believed it was a good idea. Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love. Ebert keeps scrolling down. Below his journal he had embedded video of his first show alone, the balcony seat empty across the aisle. It was a tribute, in three parts. He wants to watch them now, because he wants to remember, but at the bottom of the page there are only three big black squares. In the middle of the squares, white type reads: "Content deleted. This video is no longer available because it has been deleted.

He looks across at Chaz. The top half of his face turns red, and his eyes well up again, but this time, it's not sadness surfacing. He's shaking. It's anger. Chaz looks over his shoulder at the screen.

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