Life Is Not a Movie

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Roger Ebert hadn’t spoken a word ahead of his final years, but America seemed to be listening to him more than ever. His movie reviews. His online journal. His autobiography, Life Itself. While other newspaper columnists from his generation might have been crotchety and bemused about tweets and video streaming, Ebert’s medical realities propelled him to the head of the class, affording him newfangled awards like Webbys’ “Person of the Year” and the No. 1 ranking in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ annual column contest in the category “Online, Blog, and Multimedia Column—over 100,000 monthly unique visitors.”

Even the old guard got the new him. Ebert’s prolific online journaling—at times so poignant and poetic you wondered why he spent decades reviewing movies—was called one of the year’s best blogs by Time magazine in 2010. 

In 2011, at 69 years old and in curious health, Ebert was being heard, a lot, and it was neither a coincidence nor an act of God. It was an act of Ebert.

Roger Ebert’s cancer diagnosis

Since about 2006, not that he was counting, Ebert had been unable to eat or speak. Not one sip. Not one word. This, of course, is a predicament for even the most average of Joes, but Ebert was a guy who had earned a living for many, many years sitting before a camera, recounting his visceral views on the most recently released movies in his own voice. Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, Ebert, “the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism,” according to The Pulitzer Prizes, came through with what was considered flying colors. At the time, doctors told him his cancer was one of the best kinds to have.

The next year, though, they found recurring malignant cancer in his salivary gland and Ebert and his medical team—and presumably his beloved wife, Chaz—opted for an intense radiation treatment. In Life Itself, Ebert wrote about his treatment, which he discovered himself while doing medical research online. When the cancer returned in 2006, this time in his jawbone, the radiation had damaged his facial bones so badly that any subsequent reconstructive surgeries never took, even when doctors used healthy bone from elsewhere in his body.

From his memoir:

“I believe my infatuation with neutron radiation led directly to the failure of all three of my facial surgeries, the loss of my jaw, loss of the ability to eat, drink and speak and the surgical damage to my right shoulder and back as my poor body was plundered for still more reconstructive transplants.”

Slowly, Ebert—once famously round and robust—began to lose his face. Eventually, he also lost his voice. As of 2011, Ebert was nourished through a feeding tube.

Yet, Ebert was happy.

Adjusting to life after his diagnosis 

You could sense this from his writing—so melodious, insightful and honest it sometimes sucked the breath right out of you. After escaping death and reinventing his life, Ebert sat at his computer, delving into cerebral matters that extended way beyond a review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo—which, of course, he hated.

From his memoir:

“What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”

For our interview, Ebert answered questions by email, his preferred manner of communicating—although he did love a stack of Post-it notes, the handy-dandy talking technique he used with his wife, his full-time home nurse and the good friends invited to their Chicago townhome.

“I email incessantly,” he wrote to SUCCESS. “Oddly enough, texting is too slow for me. I don’t like to wait.”

Still, he focused on the good

He also didn’t like to talk about what was wrong with his life.

From 1992 to his death in 2013, Ebert was married to former lawyer Chaz, at his side for everything from surgery to business matters to quiet nights at home. When we asked him to recount his favorite story of his beloved Chaz, he responded, “One?”

(Yes, we knew he was a sarcastic sort.)

As of 2011, Ebert considered himself in good health. “Despite my various disabilities, I actually am in excellent health,” he said, “… so the doctor informs me after periodic checkups.” He was happiest when reading a good book or surrounded by friends and family. He still saw about four to seven movies in any given week. “During a festival, as many as 20,” he said.

Roger Ebert wrote more than just movie reviews

And he wrote—oh, did he write—hundreds of thousands of words. Funny. Sad. Insightful. Infuriating. Caustic. Kind. He wrote about politics and movies and misbehaving stars.

Frankly, it was hard to know when he slept, since his Twitter account, @ebertchicago, was generally updated every hour or so. And we’re not kidding.

“I am a writer and have been from childhood,” he said. “I haven’t spent many days of my life not writing something, and that provides its own motivation.”

And the reinventions continued. Including his autobiography, Ebert wrote over a dozen books, plus his annual compilation of the year’s best movies. His reviews were published in over 200 newspapers. But he was also hip to new media.

Online, his reviews were posted visually at Ebert Presents: At the Movies (ebertpresents.com), with Ebert and Chaz as the show’s executive producers. It was an enterprise he started after losing his speech, so veteran newsman Bill Kurtis often did the voicing. Indeed, Ebert didn’t usually appear, except in the canned intro. (He had a prosthetic voice available to him, but used it, selectively, at home.)

The format was familiar—and he intended it that way—fashioned after his longtime TV and print partnership with friend and colleague Gene Siskel, who died of brain surgery complications in 1999.

“The show format had proven itself for 35 years,” said Ebert, who still wrote his reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times. “In a time when gossip and stupidity inundate media coverage of film, it serves an important purpose.”

For Roger Ebert, happiness was about perspective

There was no trick to his happiness, except he did find it necessary to showcase others who have overcome perhaps greater odds, a not-too-little something he often did online. 

Perspective was perhaps his middle name. Because when all was said and done, Ebert still had everything he ever loved—minus the burger and fries at the corner diner under the Chicago train tracks.

Books. Movies. Family. Friends. And that amazing brain of his, which could jump-start his fingers and send them flying, day or night, sometimes saying the damnedest things. He wrote about it all, from the Tea Party to Winnie the Pooh to the end of life.

From his blog:

“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. 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.”

Grateful, indeed. For in his silence, Ebert learned to speak more eloquently than ever.  

This article was published in September 2011 and has been updated. Photo by s_bukley/Shutterstock

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