Roger Ebert the print critic is back at work at the Chicago Sun-Times, schlepping to screenings and reviewing a full load of movies. He’s in “good physical condition,” he writes in an email interview. “I walk a lot.”
His fierce battle with throat cancer has taught him “patience, in life,” he writes. “I was very sick and could hardly move for awhile, and got a whole new appreciation of the medical profession. I am enjoying seeing and reviewing movies more than ever, because after my long absence, it’s like a gift.”
But while he is cancer-free, Ebert’s road to recovery isn’t over yet. He thanks his wife Chaz for getting him this far. “Chaz has been the tireless manager of everything since the day of the post-surgical bleeding, and I am so moved by her love and energy,” he writes.
Hearty enough to attend this September’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival, Ebert didn’t go to Telluride, however, because the altitude might have interfered with his trach tube. When he hovered near death after complications from cancer surgery 14 months ago, doctors opened up a hole in his throat so he could breathe. He has yet to use his voice box.
Thus Ebert the TV critic has not returned to the chair in the balcony that has been empty for more than a year. He is “planning some more surgery to patch things up and hopefully restore my ability to speak,” he writes, “which is said to be ‘low risk.’ ” In order to return to the show, he writes, “I would have to have what I consider a television-worthy voice.”
In the meantime, as the silent critic has slowly regained his strength, “At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper” has paid his salary as a range of guest hosts have filled in for Ebert, from the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and New York Magazine’s David Edelstein to director Kevin Smith and blogger Kim Morgan. Dallas Observer critic Robert Wilonsky will be filling in for the first few months of the 22nd season.
But when Ebert’s current contract recently expired, acrimonious negotiations with Disney-ABC Domestic Television, which distributes the syndicated TV show, went public. Ebert and Disney-ABC wrangled over the value of the “thumbs up, thumbs down” feature on the movie review show, which is a registered trademark owned by Ebert and the estate of the late Gene Siskel.
According to Disney-ABC, Ebert’s representatives withheld the use of the thumbs until a new contract was signed. “Contrary to Disney’s press release, I did not demand the removal of the THUMBS,” writes Ebert, who found Disney’s first offer “offensively low. … During my absence from the balcony, I have been excited to participate in the show in ways other than being on the set. I love the show and I love the THUMBS, and I hope we will all be reunited soon.”
Disney-ABC Domestic Television remains hopeful that Ebert will return to “At the Movies.” It has been a challenge for the show’s producers to keep the TV show running without their star. They have gone to considerable expense to make the “Balcony Archive,” featuring 20 years of reviews from Ebert, Siskel and Roeper, available via AtTheMoviesTV.com. Ebert enjoyed conducting a live online chat at EbertAndRoeperTV.com to promote the site on Aug. 2. ” ‘The Balcony Archives’ have proven an enormous hit,” he writes. “The show will be working me in here and there on the Web, and using the archive on the air.”
Happy to have their star back, the Sun-Times has started a new broadsheet Friday movie section built around Ebert (the Universal Press Syndicate distributes his reviews and festival reports to 250 papers in the U.S., Canada, England, Japan and Greece), and readers are returning in droves to RogerEbert.com, which was maintained by critic-webmaster Jim Emerson during Ebert’s absence. “Business is booming,” Ebert writes. “We are currently preparing an overhaul.”
Ebert was not pleased, however, when EbertAndRoeperTV.com started posting some of his “exclusive” print reviews from the Sun-Times. Emerson informed the TV site that it did not have the rights to post the reviews and asked it to run partial quotes with links to RogerEbert.com instead.
For Ebert, the big turning point toward returning to the life he loves was being able to host his annual “Overlooked Film Festival” in April, where he greeted the audience, then parked himself in a wheelchair at the back of the theater, writing notes to people who approached him. He released a photo of himself, face bandage and all, on the Internet. He’s looking forward to mounting the next fest in April.
Singularly, for a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper critic who is 65, Ebert plants his feet in the past as well as the future. After all, he started out 40 years ago at the Sun-Times as a young man. “I got the job, essentially, because the previous film critic, Eleanor Keen, retired,” he writes. “Film criticism in those days was moving from the age of (Bosley) Crowther to the age of (Pauline) Kael. Junkets and sound bites and protective publicists were not so universal, and I was able to spend a lot of time with interview subjects, who would, in such cases as Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Groucho Marx and Robert Altman, say anything, literally anything, and not care if you quoted them.”
Today’s newspapers are going to have to embrace their film critics as well as the Internet to survive the future, he writes: “Do newspapers realize their local critics are one of the things that set them apart from Google News? Yes, I am syndicated, but I hope my reviews are used as backup and do not replace any jobs. On the other hand, I hardly need to mention the importance of the Web. Moviegoers these days know so much more about the movies, in every respect, than they did years ago.”