Roger Ebert can no longer talk, eat or drink.
For a sociable film critic — and one who was a television mainstay for four decades — that fate could have been murder. But judging by the energy in his body language and the way his eyes shine when he's in front of a crowd, you'd never know the depth of the physical challenges the esteemed film critic has endured since being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2005.
See also: Excerpt from Life Itself: A Memoir.
Surgery to remove the cancer took part of his lower jaw, and he underwent multiple operations to try to restore both his face and his ability to function. Those surgeries weren't as successful as he and the surgeons had hoped, and now Ebert has to take in nutrition through a feeding tube several times a day. No matter. Cancer-free, Ebert, 69, goes about life a purposeful, passionate man.
As he writes in his new book, Life Itself: A Memoir, "I'm happy I don't look worse. I made a simple decision to just get on with life. I will look the way I look, and express myself in print, and I will be content."
His book takes readers on a colorful trip from his growing-up years in Urbana, Ill., to his newspaper days in Chicago as a successful journalist, to his love of film, his fortuitous pairing-up with Gene Siskel for TV, with whom he spent 23 years cohosting Sneak Previews, At the Movies and Siskel & Ebert, and his remarkable career as an author beyond that. He's the only film critic with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and today he's managing editor and reviewer for the weekly program Ebert Presents at the Movies. His website receives over 100 million visits a year.
Ebert is forthright and vivid in his written speech — as in his articles and books. The AARP Bulletin spoke to him by email to ask about his thoughts on life, work, retirement, memory and more.
Q. You and your wife, Chaz, often take the stage together. She reads your words as you manipulate the computer keyboard. As easy as it looks, it must have been challenging to create this fusion of life and work.
A. We see things in much the same way, and we've been together for more than 20 years. And now that I have these [physical] troubles, Chaz has been there by my side, seen me through them and understands them. She has a wonderful stage presence and a lovely reading voice, and when I was no longer able to emcee Ebertfest, my film festival, she stepped in seamlessly. We've been going to festivals and movies together all of that time, so she understands that world.
Q. In your book, you say that when you look at Chaz, you see her for who she is — you don't see her "blackness." Explain.
A. We miss a lot when we judge a book by its cover. I have found in recent years that the Internet has a way of short-stopping prejudices. I know people online who no one suspects are elderly. Through my blog, I've also found uncommonly intelligent writers who were very young.
Q. What does this say about a society that often marginalizes people based on appearance, age or race?
A. It says that most people do and always have judged by appearances. That's a fact. I wish I knew how to fix it. With every word I write, I try to signal that although I am 69 and incapable of speaking, here inside me resides all the younger people I ever have been in my life. And that is a benefit in my writing.
Q. Would you have had the success you've had in your life if you hadn't been paired with Gene Siskel?
A. Not of the same sort. Remember the line from the movie Network? "It's because you're in television, dummy." I would have been about the same writer that I am without Gene, but he was an invaluable partner on television. Something about the two of us together made our show work.
Q. Do you think about him every day? [He died in 1999.]
A. Yes, I do.
Q. What does he mean to you?
A. What he means to me is in the present, not the past. He was remarkably intelligent, observant and incisive. I valued his advice. We shared many things. I often think of his definition of "lip flap." That's when people speak without saying anything. I think of it often when listening to celebrities and to politicians of every party.
Q. What are your thoughts on journalism and the film industry today?
A. Journalism is in upheaval. [A.J. Liebling] said, "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one." Today everyone owns one. As for films? The Hollywood mainstream has been devastated by marketing. Few genuine filmmakers remain. Films in general, however, are as good (and as bad) as ever.
Q. Can you name your top five or top 10 films of all time, and why? You knew we were going to ask you this!
A. And you knew I wasn't going to answer! People tirelessly inflict me with requests for lists of these films and those films. I don't do lists. Once every decade, I vote in an international poll by Sight & Sound, the British film magazine. In 2002, alphabetically, my choices were:
4. Citizen Kane
7. Raging Bull
8. The General
9. Tokyo Story
Q. Tell us about the demons you've overcome in your life.
A. My worst demon was alcohol. I stopped drinking in 1979. Demon, be gone!
Q. And you beat cancer, of course. Have your experiences with doctors and hospitals given you new insight into our health care system?
A. I have had only positive experiences. I have been lucky to benefit from wonderful doctors — and, on the daily firing line, nurses and nurses' aides, who are there in the middle of the night. I strongly believe in universal health care, and find it incredible that ours is the only major industrialized nation that doesn't offer it. The arguments against it are hogwash, and it's a tragedy that many seniors have been persuaded to vote against their own self-interest.
Q. Memories are very important to you — you share so many from throughout your life in your book. What is the importance of memory over time?
A. I seem to be gaining memories, not losing them. Memories are what I am, and who I am. Those who have Alzheimer's are the victims of an unspeakable tragedy.
Q. What's good about growing older? What's bad about it?
A. It's all worth remembering. The silver lining is that there is more to remember. Since my mind remains intact, the bad part is that my body can't keep up. That's built in, so there's no use fretting.
Q. Why do you keep working?
A. I am fortunate that my work is personal. It expresses who I am. My advice to a young person would be this: Seek not a job, but a vocation.
Q. Do you have any plans to retire?
A. If I retired, what would I do then? Exactly the same as I am doing now, but without being able to write? Unthinkable.
Q. Should anyone truly retire?
A. The ideal would be to retire into a better occupation. If all you do is stop working, then what does that say about your job? Leisure can be exhausting.
Q. If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
A. To be fluent in three or four languages. Otherwise, things are pretty much fine.
Q. Tell us something we never knew about Roger Ebert.
A. When I was 4, I believed there was a little green worm with teeth that lived in the drain of the bathroom sink.
Q. Little green worm! That's not what we were expecting! How about something else we never knew?
A. I'll never forget when Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney and I stripped naked, covered ourselves with talcum powder and rode bareback on silver-smooth stallions under the harvest moon. What a night it was!
Q. How have you arrived at such a comfortable place with yourself? Many people would envy it.
A. I have a vocation I love and am able to continue practicing it. It would drive me nuts to have free time all day.
Maureen Mackey is an editor and writer in New York.
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