Sunday, August 24, 2014

Reflections on Roger Ebert

There are movie people and there are those of us who are not. I was almost 50 years old before that dawned on me.

I met the new lady in Fairhope who was going to be in charge of an arts committee and we were having lunch. At that point there was one place out in the strip mall that had excellent soups and sandwiches that was so popular my friends referred to it as "Elaine's" after the NYC joint everybody who was anybody went to. I think that's where we were when she blithely said, "I'm not a movie person," after I brought up the latest flick I wanted to critique with her. I was stunned. I thought everybody who was alive was a movie person; the movies had defined me since as a toddler I had wept for Bambi and, a few years later hid behind the seat in the row ahead of me while Lon Chaney Jr.'s hair all over his body grew, turning him into a bona fide werewolf.

I watched all kinds of movies, from the MGM musicals where pretty people danced down streets to be greeted in song by butchers, bakers, and other townspeople--to the wrenching, soul-killing melodrama of Northern troops setting fire to Atlanta. My first husband, also a movie person, took me to Ingmar Bergman black and white dramas and the ever-so-happy Never on Sunday, which we both agreed we wanted to see for the first time again somehow. My second husband was an actor who preferred the dark European films, bloody with gruesome scenes and ambiguous outcomes as much as he did the circus phantasmagoria of Fellini. All movies mattered to me, whether I liked, loved, hated, or was confused by them. They were at once my great escape and my great medium for self analysis.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were a part of the wallpaper of movies in my life for a period of some ten years. I respected their opinions and enjoyed their television back-and-forth even though I didn't always agree with both at the same time. However, if both gave a thumbs-up I was pretty sure to like the movie. If only Roger did, I usually did too. I liked his intellect. His pervasive, almost unconditional love of the movies struck home for me.

The new documentary about Roger Ebert called Life Itself tells the story of the superbright kid who grew up in Illinois and found he could write about the movies and its stars as well as just about anybody. He went on to edit the college newspaper, and from there to the movie desk at the Chicago Sun-Times, turning himself into the traditional hard-drinking raconteur Chicago newsman as depicted in some old Ben Hecht movie.  Until the night he almost killed himself, had an epiphany, and joined AA. He says that he never took a drink after his first meeting and never wanted to. That in itself is remarkable.

The movie shows interviews and testimonials from old friends, co-workers, and fans. Gene's Siskel's wife documents the testy relationship the two shared, and gives Gene's side of the story. When Roger married the brilliant attorney "Chaz" Hammelsmith, he went from a lost-lone-ranger-type movie lover to a lover of life itself, and the 20 years they had together were extraordinary. Her strength of character was put to the test when he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and and salivary glands, and had to have a large portion of his face and throat removed. He went on to write eloquently of his philosophy, his thoughts about the meaning of life, and even about what it was like to live without the possibility of eating or drinking anything again. He was a truly superb writer, with a big heart and a commitment to live to the fullest extent he could, no matter the circumstances.

I was thrilled by his story, although I found it difficult to look at the grotesque distortion of his face in his last years. He could only communicate by writing and by the look in his eyes. He still loved and managed to review movies, but was ably abetted by a team of writers of his choosing, as he moved to the Internet rather than television and the lecture halls at film festivals. His courage and endurance made him an exemplary human being--larger than life in more ways than one--and his love for the movies made him that much more accessible to the rest of us movie people. Life Itself brings that home in a very real and personal way.



  1. Beautiful story. Oh my Roger, my Roger!

  2. Well written, Mary Lois. I used to like to watch Siskel and Ebert, and I trusted Roger the most, too. I hated the thought of losing him. But even though he's not here to write reviews any more, I still go to his website to look for reviews of movies I'm considering for my Netflix queue, or to record.