The first message I ever received from Roger Ebert came nearly 20 years ago, in the form of a reply to a fan letter I’d sent him with little hope of hearing back. At the time, I was a high-school student in Tampa, infatuated with movies and making my first stabs at writing about them in the school paper — reviews written with the latest edition of Ebert’s annual “Movie Home Companion” close at hand. Then there was the weekly broadcast of “Siskel & Ebert” (or “At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert” or “Siskel & Ebert and the Movies,” as it was variously known over the years) — requisite viewing in our house, even if it was sometimes challenging, in the pre-Internet, pre-TiVo era, to follow its frequent shifts of airtime and day throughout the syndication universe.
I can’t recall the exact contents of Roger’s letter, which I still have tucked away in a drawer somewhere, except that it spoke warmly (and, I’m sure now, far too generously) of the handful of published reviews I’d included, and, more than any words of praise garnered from teachers or family members, encouraged me to keep writing. Then, a few weeks later there was a phone call from Andrea Gronvall, now a fine film critic in her own right, then one of the producers of “Siskel & Ebert.” Roger and Gene would be coming to nearby Orlando to tape their annual “If We Picked the Winners” Oscar special before a live audience at the Disney-MGM Studios and wanted to invite me to the taping. Needless to say, we made a family trip out of it — even my octogenarian grandmother, a frequent moviegoing companion, tagged along.
As I would later learn, this encounter was exceptional for me but nothing unusual for Roger, who always took a keen interest in the next generation, and who managed — even in a time before email — to maintain a voluminous ongoing correspondence with fans, detractors, colleagues and humble advice-seekers. He was a true man of the people in a profession often accused of smug elitism.
I also remember the last message I received from Roger. It came just a couple of weeks ago, congratulating me on my new appointment as Variety’s chief film critic. It was a simple “Congrats! Cheers, R.” I wrote back thanking him, for everything, and saying I hoped we’d see each other soon.
In between, there were many memorable encounters. In 2003, Roger invited me to be a panelist at his annual Ebertfest (then called Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival) on the campus of his alma mater, the U. of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Roger had started that festival as a way of championing underseen films, but even by 2003 the only real selection criteria was movies that Roger liked. (The closing-night screening was “Singin’ in the Rain,” because, according to Roger, musicals were an “overlooked genre.”) That year’s program also included a cast-and-crew reunion screening of “The Right Stuff” and a visit by the master French director Bertrand Tavernier, who celebrated his 62nd birthday onstage following a screening of his “L.627.” The screenings were (and continue to be) held in the Virginia Theater, a beautifully preserved 1,600-seat movie palace; guests stayed in student housing on the campus.
Then there was Roger himself, who rose at dawn, had breakfast with the invited guests, introduced each film screening, led the post-screening discussions with the filmmakers and then, around midnight, adjourned to an all-night diner to hold court with whoever wanted to come for another couple of hours. At the previous year’s festival, I learned, Roger had fallen and broken his arm on one of the first days, but, after a few hours in the ER, was back on the scene and operating at full speed. No surprise there.
In 2006, about to board a plane back to Los Angeles from the National Society of Film Critics meeting in New York, I discovered that Roger had written a column, “In defense of the year’s ‘worst movie,’” which began: “Having selected ‘Crash’ as the best film of 2005, I was startled to learn from Scott Foundas, a critic for LA Weekly, that it is the worst film of the year.” Roger was responding to comments I had made in the Movie Club forum of Slate.com, an annual roundtable of critics assembled by Slate’s then-critic David Edelstein to discuss the previous year in movies. A few days later I followed up with a riposte of my own in the pages of the Weekly. The exchange was heated but never ungentlemanly. When I next saw Roger, a few months later in Cannes, we laughed the whole thing off. When I met the director of “Crash,” Paul Haggis, some years later, I was amused to learn that he’d been oblivious to this entire teacup tempest.
There was another thing that, until Thursday, Roger and I shared: We were both cancer survivors. It’s something I don’t recall us ever discussing, and certainly my own 2005 fight against testicular cancer paled in comparison to the tumors of varying kinds that slowly ravaged and disfigured Roger’s body. I mention it now only to say that Roger’s incredible bravery and perseverance in the face of his disease seemed doubly remarkable to those of us who have ourselves navigated this strange world of invasive surgeries, “tumor markers,” CT scans, warm iodine injections that light your body up inside like a Christmas tree, and the nagging sense that no state of remission is fully guaranteed.
The more Roger became a prisoner of his body, the more he seemed to escape into his rich and sophisticated mind. By the agreement of almost everyone I know, his writing in these last years was among the best he’d ever done, more personal and expansive, marked by a still-astonishing rate of productivity. He wrote a wonderful memoir, close in its deceptively profound, plainspoken way to two of the writers Roger most admired: Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson. And indeed, Roger was nothing if not an Anglophile: Among the least known books he authored is a slender volume called “The Perfect London Walk,” an instructional travel book that, having taken the journey it maps, I can assure you is a rare case of truth in titling.
It would be all too easy to position Roger’s passing as some sort of literal manifestation of the much-discussed “death” of film criticism, but no one would object to that idea more than Roger himself, who believed passionately in criticism and was, even in his final days, taking measures to ensure the future of his RogerEbert.com and its army of regular contributors and “far-flung correspondents.” As long as there are movies, and people who feel passionate enough to write about them, and places for them to do so, then Roger’s spirit will continue to flourish. The balcony remains open.
More: Roger Ebert dies at 70