My Favorite Roger Ebert Story
Whenever I need inspiration, or I want to feel like a complete piece of crap who’s unworthy of my job, I read an old Roger Ebert review.
Ebert died five years ago today, on April 4, 2013, but his complete archive is still available at RogerEbert.com. I look at it frequently, either to build myself up or tear myself down as the situation demands. That was one of Ebert’s skills; his writing was so direct and clear he made it seem like anyone could do it. But his prose was deceptively simple, and it masked rigorous formal insights and personal confessions that few critics of any era could match. He was that rarest of critics: His work was instantly accessible to a mainstream audience, and also deep enough to engage and challenge cinephiles. I like to think after more than 15 years writing about movies and 10 years as a professional, I’ve gotten better at this. Then I look at one of Ebert’s “Great Movies” essays and that puts things back in perspective.
From a fan’s perspective, Ebert’s death happened so fast. He’d been in poor health off and on for years, but 2012 had been one of his most productive years; he wrote over 300 reviews plus assorted blog posts and interviews. On April 2, 2013 he announced his “leave of presence” from regular reviewing because of a recurrence of cancer. But he also vowed to keep writing about movies, and “what it’s like to cope with health challenges.” Two days later, he was gone.
Five years later, I still think about Ebert a lot. I wish we could see his reviews of current movies. (I would have loved to read his takes on Annihilation and A Wrinkle in Time.) And I often wonder what he would have made of internet film discourse these days. He would have loved the broad spectrum of voices writing about film, and the increasing diversity in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. He probably would have hated the way fan culture has reduced movies to puzzles that need to be “solved.” (For proof of that, look at what he wrote 50 years ago this week about audiences trying to figure out the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) He definitely would have loathed the way social media has mutated so many conversations around movies into petty, personal arguments. Ebert was a great believer in the power of technology to connect and uplift people. The events of the last couple of years may have adjusted his view on that.
To commemorate the anniversary of Ebert’s death this week, his website is publishing fans and critics’ favorite Roger stories. Here is mine.
It’s December 16, 2010. I’ve been flown to Chicago to audition to be a part of the cast of Ebert Presents At the Movies, the new version of the classic film review show that first made me want to be a critic when I was 13 years old. On December 16, 2010, I’m exactly one week shy of my 30th birthday.
The trip feels like the culmination of something. Even if I don’t get cast on the show, I’ll get to meet Roger Ebert. I want the job more than anything on the planet, but after growing up obsessively watching Siskel & Ebert, reading Ebert’s reviews online, buying his books, that’s about the best consolation prize imaginable.
The audition happens. Afterwards, Chaz Ebert thanks me for coming, and takes me from the studio where we shot the screen test to a small windowless office where Roger was overseeing things on a closed-circuit TV feed. I walk into the room. Roger is sitting in a big brown recliner, a computer on his lap. He sees me and flashes a thumbs up.
Somehow, I don’t faint.
I try to play it cool, and tell him how much I appreciate the opportunity. Thankfully, before I attain my final form as Chris Farley from The Chris Farley Show, Roger starts insistently pointing at his computer screen. I walk over and see that Blake Edwards, the director of The Pink Panther and many other wonderful comedies, had just died. That’s when I realize: At the same time Roger was overseeing auditions for his new show, he was also writing an obituary for the Chicago Sun-Times.
He wrote a good one too; you can still read it on RogerEbert.com. It’s certainly better than anything I could have written while supervising a television production. Roger’s professionalism and work ethic in that moment blew me away, and they’ve always stuck with me.
Rereading his Edwards obituary today I was struck by these words from Roger:
“[Edwards’] life was filled with laughter, its end, shadowed by illness. He remained productive as long as he could.”
And so did Roger.
Thank you Roger, for inspiring so many film lovers and setting an incredible example. I promise, you are not forgotten.