Most people know Roger Ebert for his movie reviews and his trademark “thumbs up” rating system. Perhaps those people know that Ebert has been battling health problems for years, including a bout with cancer that has claimed most of his lower jaw and rendered him mute. But in an Esquire article, Chris Jones gives us a revealing, sometimes sad, sometimes inspiring look at the most famous movie critic of all time.
Hit the jump for some excerpts and my thoughts.
The seven-page story begins with Ebert doing what he does: watching a movie. From that innocuous beginning, Jones takes us into Ebert’s world and it’s incredibly compelling. Some of the more bleak excerpts include:
On losing his ability to eat, drink and speak normally:
“On some morning or afternoon or evening, sometime in 2006, Ebert took his last bite and sip, and he spoke his last word[…]His last words weren’t recorded. There was just his voice, and then there wasn’t.”
On nearly dying in the hospital:
“Blood began pouring out of Ebert’s mouth and formed a great pool on the polished floor. The doctors and nurses leapt up to stop the bleeding and barely saved his life.”
The surgery from that close-call resulted in a tracheotomy and the loss of most of his jaw.
On the apparent futility of repairing his jaw:
“Each time, he had one or two weeks of hope and relief when he could eat a little and drink a little and talk a little[…]But each time, the reconstructive work fell apart and had to be stripped out, the hole opened up again.”
But even with all of the terrible things that have affected Ebert’s life, he retains the sense of humor that makes his movie reviews (especially the negative ones) so enjoyable. When a woman writes him a note instead of just speaking to him, Ebert responds by tapping his ear and rolling his eyes. There’s also a sense of a zen-like outlook on life from Roger and his wife, Chaz. They make it a point not to dwell on the bad luck that has plagued Roger’s health through the past few years.
Ebert makes it very clear that he is completely and totally in love with what he does. He is more passionate about his writing now than ever. Obviously, it is his only real means of communication. But it goes far beyond that. In his own words:
“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.“
Roger Ebert claims to be an atheist, but the way he speaks about journalism, it’s clear that writing is his religion. There is a utopian feeling in the way he speaks about his journalism. Roger Ebert is monk-like in his devotion to entertainment journalism, giving his entire life to what it is that he loves to do. I already respected the man for what he has accomplished in an industry that is often looked at as being jaded and cynical, but after reading the Esquire article, there’s a whole new aspect to him that makes him admirable, not just as a journalist but as a man going through things that no one should ever have to experience. Rather than becoming understandably bitter or angry, Ebert seems to have accepted his situation with grace and has no trouble in finding the silver lining.
On a piece of paper, or on a computer screen Ebert hasn’t changed. He’s still has the voice that he’s always had. And he’s never going to give that up willingly. The article is seven pages long, and I could quote and praise any given passage but you should really read it for yourself.