CHICAGO – Roger Ebert has always been a man of many words. Insightful ones. Sincere ones. Often quite sublime ones. Some have even been known to sting, as those slammed in one of his negative movie reviews can attest — that means you, Transformers: Dark of the Moon director Michael Bay, and your "gigantic and hideous robots."After 44 years as one of America's pre-eminent film critics, this Pulitzer-winning pundit is more productive than ever as he continues to churn out weekly reviews for the venerable Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, plus make appearances on his revived weekly TV show, now called Ebert Presents at the Movies.At an age — 69 — when retirement usually beckons, Ebert has willed himself into being reborn as a virtual whiz kid. He has fully embraced social networking, an activity he once derided, with the sort of late-life desire Hugh Hefner exhibits when welcoming a fresh supply of twin Playmates to the mansion.Ebert has accumulated nearly 70,000 "likes" on his Facebook page and 524,015 followers on Twitter. His blog has racked up 111 million views in the past year. And how many journalists can boast of having their own iPhone app?Not that this film fanatic is giving up on older forms of communication. Arriving next week: his first memoir.
But there is a sad reality behind the networking: Ebert can no longer speak after cancer, which began with a tumor that was removed in 1987 and reoccurred years later, robbed him of his voice in 2006. Multiple surgeries to battle the disease that ravaged his thyroid, salivary glands and jaw left him with a chin whose skin dangles loosely and leaves a gap where his throat should be. Eating and drinking are also out, replaced by a feeding tube.
But at least his words haven't failed him. His Amazon page shows he has written or co-written 23 titles, mainly movie-themed compendiums. But No. 24 is a different story: his own.A tough new 'Life'The nearly 500 pages of Life Itself: A Memoir (Grand Central Publishing, $28, on sale Sept. 13) covers his eventful existence, which began with his happy boyhood in Urbana, Ill., spent as a budding bookworm and self-described "little jerk." Chapters touch upon his geeky fascination with science-fiction fanzines; the great tragedy of Blackie the dog; his run-ins with racism while studying in Cape Town on a Rotary scholarship in 1965; and his free-flowing interview with an inebriated Lee Marvin during the making of 1969's Paint Your Wagon.Last year, Ebert made headlines by going public in Esquire, detailing how he has adapted after his medical ordeals and bravely revealing his new, altered face on the magazine's cover. Once again, he is welcoming a fellow member of the press into his five-story red-brick brownstone in shady Lincoln Park, which he shares with Chaz, his wife of almost 20 years.The August sun streams in on the second floor, reachable by elevator, where Ebert spends most of his hours. A bed is in the center of a library whose walls are obscured behind shelves groaning with books (he refers to them as "shrines to my past hours"). A bathroom and office are nearby. Tasteful clutter and museum-quality art abound.The centerpiece of a cozy denlike work area is a black leather anti-gravity reclining chair, where Ebert types with his laptop propped up on a worn wooden tray. Chaz says it is the only seat that offers any relief to her husband's pain-racked body, left battered after several failed tries by doctors to use borrowed bone, skin and tissue to repair his jaw area. Directly in his line of vision hangs a black-and-white photo of a Steak 'n Shake eatery, a fave hangout of yore.Occasionally, Ebert makes a sound that is a cross between a wheeze and a cough, as if clearing his head. Gauze is wrapped around his neck to protect the exposed area under his chin, and he walks with a careful shuffle, his jeans sagging in the back, hip-hop style. His liquid diet is highly conducive to weight loss.
"My health remains excellent," he says in an earlier e-mail, "apart from my obvious physical troubles. It is difficult for me to walk long distances — more than 15 blocks, say. Oddly, however, it is more painful for me to stand than to walk."After doing mostly movie-linked titles in the past, how does he feel about his life literally becoming an open book? "It's a bigger feeling," he says in person with the aid of text-to-speech software hooked up to his MacBook Pro, which mimics the pattern and timbre of his lost voice. "I began with misgivings, and I believe everything turned out all right."While many highs are celebrated, Ebert is admirably candid about the lows. He comes clean about his alcoholism (he sobered up in 1979), his tense relationship with his elderly mother and his extended bachelorhood, romantic conquests included. As he says, "In for a dime, in for a dollar. I'm only going to write one memoir, and it might as well be honest."The book is an outgrowth of his blog at rogerebert.com, which he started in 2008. "The first comments that came in to my journal were electrifying. I was still writing from my hospital bed, and I realized there were people out there — not 'readers,' but intelligent and articulate individuals. I now receive more online messages in a day than I did by snail mail in a month."Talking with Ebert in person can be a frustrating experience for both him and others. He scribbles notes on a small spiral pad, traces words on surfaces and uses hand gestures and noises. But they are sorry substitutes for actual speech. "People have little patience with those who can't talk," he says. "At parties and benefits, I sit there like the village idiot, which is frankly why tributes are an ordeal. Especially now that I often inspire standing ovations simply by not having died."Chaz says his legion of admirers should beware of mistaking her husband for a warm and fuzzy guy. "He is good-hearted. But that is not his basic disposition. He doesn't want to be 'poor Roger.' "'Better than he's ever been'Yet engaging with people on the Web has set him free, and Ebert's regulars have noticed a resurgence of passion and vigor in the phrases that pour out of him in his reveries. "Online, my entire mind comes into play, and I feel a hunger to express myself," he says. "I imagine I would be desperate if it weren't for the Internet."
If Ebert was an inspiration before to wordsmiths and aspiring critics, a vanishing breed as print journalism continues its decline, he's a revelation now.Chicago-area native Nell Minow, who goes by the alias Movie Mom as a critic for Beliefnet, is typical of cinephiles who were encouraged by Ebert's success to follow their own dreams.
She and others have noted that it felt as if Ebert had softened his critical punch after Siskel died. But these days, she observes, "he's a better writer and critic than he's ever been. I think he's a better critic and writer than anyone has ever been. All the stuff on his blog is incredible. People don't really realize what an excellent writer he is."Of course, Ebert wasn't a solo act back in the day, and he isn't one now. The undisputed MVP on Team Roger is Chaz, a former attorney who is vice president of The Ebert Company, as well as the producer of Ebert Presents."Her love was like a wind pushing me back from the grave," Ebert writes of how the soulmate he met in 1989 gave him hope in his darkest days.While her husband takes a bathroom break, Chaz seizes the opportunity to speak freely about her dedication to keeping Ebert, both the man and the brand, alive and kicking."He's just an original," she says. "I knew, I just had this deep-down feeling, that it wasn't his time to go. And that he had something else to do. And there would be a metamorphosis that he would have as a result of it."
This afternoon, she drives Ebert and their guest to a screening of Seven Days in Utopia, a self-help parable that employs golf as a metaphor for life. (The opening line of his eventual review says it all: "I would rather eat a golf ball than see this movie again.")
Ebert points at the windshield. It dawns on his companions that he is zeroing in on a group of Muslim women, taking photos while modestly wrapped from head to toe in fabric, and noting the irony in such a juxtaposition.Sometimes great thoughts can transcend words.