Last March, I had a chance to meet Roger Ebert when he came to the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. He was presenting the Italian film “Umberto D,” answering questions, and autographing copies of his latest book. Ebert is not only the world’s best known movie critic, he is the only writer in his field to win a Pulitzer Prize for his work. With fellow critic Gene Siskel, he created the concept of rating films with a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”
Three months after his appearance here, Ebert had surgery for a recurrence of cancer in his salivary gland, and complications from that surgery have kept him sidelined for ten months. He hasn’t appeared on his weekly television show, and has written only a handful of reviews for his newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times.
Ebert is poised to reappear tomorrow night when his ninth annual Overlooked Film Festival opens at the University of Illinois. In a piece for his paper today, he wrote about his decision to attend.
I have received a lot of advice that I should not attend the festival. I’m told that paparazzi will take unflattering pictures, people will be unkind, etc.
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. As a journalist I can take it as well as dish it out.
So let’s talk turkey. What will I look like? To paraphrase a line from “Raging Bull,” I ain’t a pretty boy no more.
Ebert goes on to describe how the surgery required removing part of his jaw bone, and that a tracheotomy has left him temporarily unable to speak. Ebert does not believe that his altered appearance should make him unwilling to leave the house.
So when I turn up in Urbana, I will be wearing a gauze bandage around my neck, and my mouth will be seen to droop. So it goes.
I was told photos of me in this condition would attract the gossip papers. So what?
I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks. I still have my brain and my typing fingers.
Ebert’s piece is titled, “We Spend Too Much Time Hiding Illness,” and he’s exactly right. Some people may feel uncomfortable seeing him in less than perfect health, but that shouldn’t stop him from doing what he enjoys most. “Why do I want to go? Above all, to see the movies,” Ebert explains. “Being sick is no fun. But you can have fun while you’re sick. I wouldn’t miss the festival for anything!”
Good for you, Roger.