The Balcony’s Always Open: Roger Ebert, One Year On

Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert, 1970

I miss Roger Ebert. This isn’t a profound sentiment, many people miss Roger, most notably his lovely wife Chaz, family, friends, former co-workers, and the legions of internet scribes who lost it at the show about movies starring two guys with famous opposable digits. Writers miss him too, like Will Leitch, a columnist at Sports on Earth and movie critic in his own right.

Ebert and Leitch, in fact, have an interesting history. Both University of Illinois alums, the Pulitzer Prize winner became a mentor to the collegiate journalist -- kickstarted by a question regarding the legend of Ebert’s Daily Illini sexual predilections -- and the two shared a warm relationship until Leitch proved it’s probably best not to kill your idols (just maybe ignore them for a while?) Ultimately, Ebert took the high road and Leitch penned a heartfelt mea culpa. I asked Leitch for his thoughts on Ebert as April 4 marks a year since his passing.

"Every single movie I see, I find myself wondering what Roger would have thought of it. (I know he would have gone crazy for "Nymphomaniac": A lack of prurience about sexuality in a daring movie about addiction? Perfect for Roger.) I miss his voice, the unerring way he could transform real life into words that everybody understood and could relate to, no matter their own experience. I miss his expansiveness and his inherently welcoming nature: His empathy was his absolute best trait as a writer," Leitch said. "But I don't miss his writing, though, because there is just so much of it. I still have his Great Movies app on my phone and all his books on my bookshelf; I can read Ebert within seconds, any time I need to. And I often need to."

I’m envious of Leitch’s relationship with Ebert. I only met the man once, at a bookstore Q&A with Michael Kinsley regarding his contribution to the Slate Diaries. The conversation was about technology, Ebert fondly recalled his Compuserv days, but we weren't allowed to ask about movies. I’m not into technology, so it was a bit disappointing, but he signed my copy of Roger Ebert’s Book of Film, a cherished gift from my mom when I went out west to make it as a screenwriter. (Astute readers will probably surmise that career hasn't panned out. Yet, mom’s right. Rome wasn't built in a day and I hope I recognize "success and fulfillment...when it finally comes.") I got to shake Ebert’s hand though. Good enough.

I have a vivid memory of an early encounter with "At the Movies." I was twelve and my buddy Bobby T and I caught their review of "This is Spinal Tap." It included the clip where Derek Smalls can't get out of, or back into, that ridiculous plastic, pod-like stagecraft. I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen and we rushed out to see it. Or rather, this being 1982 Billings Montana, waited a year for it to come out as a VHS rental at the Video Library. Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert loved "Spinal Tap," and it remains one of my all-time favorite comedies.

From then on, I never missed an episode. "At the Movies" ran Saturday evenings. I had to tape it because the Sauer family attended six o’clock mass. Like Roger, I too spent many a year as an altar boy. I would diligently "program" the VCR, a habit I kept throughout my own midwest undergraduate sojourn at Marquette University, and while learning from the greats -- like Ebert’s fellow Chicagoan Shelly Berman -- at the University of Southern California.

After Siskel passed away in 1999, I started watching the show less and less. I never took to Richard Roeper, and by then I was back in New York City, interested more in what the Times reviewers like Elvis Mitchell, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis had to say. I still skimmed Ebert’s reviews online, but I wasn’t as enraptured as I was when reading the Sun-Times back in Milwaukee.

Then in 1998, Roger Ebert got sick. And as his life started to end, mine was just beginning, and he became a valued, trusted, treasured friend.

If you’re unaware of Ebert’s medical history, I suggest taking some time to read Chris Jones’s masterful Esquire profile. Even if you know that cancer would lead to the removal of Ebert’s lower jaw, robbing him of the ability to eat, drink and speak, take a second to look at the gorgeous, haunting, humane picture that accompanied the piece. Like the proverb says, all people smile in the same language. Instead of becoming a full-time wallower, Roger did what he does best: He sat down and started to write. The dawn of the last phase of his life is recounted in his terrific memoir Life Itself:

"In April 2008, I wrote my first blog entry and began this current, and probably final, stage of my life. My blog became me voice, my outlet, my social medium in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of. Into it I pour my regrets, desires, and memories... Most people choose to write a blog, I needed to."

His blog became the best thing on the internet. It’s hard to classify exactly what "Roger Ebert’s Journal" was, other than to say...everything. He wrote about his youthhis drinking days and his alcoholism, his progressive politics, Chaz, his beloved rice cooker, his favorite burger joint Steak n’ Shake, and movies, of course. His final entry, "A Leave of Presence," talked about how he was working with director Steve James (one of the geniuses behind "Hoop Dreams," Ebert’s top film of the 1990s) on a documentary version of Life Itself.

"When I was first approached about turning Roger's memoir into a documentary, I wasn't so sure.  I was pretty knowledgeable about Roger's place in film culture: I had discovered the show early on and watched regularly and then started reading Roger's reviews when I moved to Chicago in the mid-80's.  And of course, when he and Gene Siskel truly championed 'Hoop Dreams' before anyone else, it had a profound impact on that film and my career.  Yet doing a film on Roger the film critic didn't initially appeal," James told me last week. "But once I read his memoir, I was hooked.  It is beautifully written, humble, candid, poignant.  But it also made clear that Roger had lived a fascinating personal life - one that informed his criticism.  And that's the surprising aspect of his story that made me want to do the film. I only got to spend about four months around him before he died unexpectedly, but his courage and sense of humor during those last months was both moving and inspiring. It was an honor to make this film and I wish, just as Chaz says, that Roger could have lived to see 'Life Itself' completed."

I saw it last week. It’s remarkable. James is with Ebert every staggering step as his final act comes to a close. It’s intimate, funny, poignant, hard to watch at times as Roger struggles, but in the end, the perfect tribute.

It meant a lot to me personally because Ebert’s online universe was a great comfort in some trying times. As the economy cratered and the freelance market dried up, I was often left with little to do. On the flip side, my businesswoman wife had way too much on her plate. As she worked more, I worked less. We were also trying to have a baby. A couple of failed attempts made for long years and Ebert’s website was always great for taking me somewhere else. And I’m not alone, even the commenters were cool -- let me repeat that, the comments were worth reading -- piggybacking Ebert’s memories with their own. We all have a Steak n’ Shake, right? My hometown Billings had Sandee’s, with its tiny, kinda-gross cheeseburgers we ate to death. I can still see the grease stains on the paper bag.

In 2010, everything changed again. Our daughter was born. The dark clouds had lifted, but the economy of freelancing hadn’t changed, so I became a stay-at-home-dad with a writing hobby. It’s been amazing, a time I wouldn’t trade for all the Oscars on Meryl Streep’s mantelpiece, but it’s been an isolating one. My wife and I don’t have family in Brooklyn, and a lot of friends have moved on to start their lives anew. I’m not trolling for sympathy here, it’s the life we chose and we love it, but it is weird and sometimes lonely to be an adult man who’s spent most of the last 3.5-years with a motormouth child. But hey, she loves the movies. One of her favorite words is an-tag-ah-nist and we spend a lot of time discussing the wrongdoings of Maleficent, Doc Hopper, and that mean old red-eye robot Otto from "Wall-E."

Like Leitch, I needed Roger Ebert. I needed a place to go to pass the time, to let my mind wander, to laugh, to get teary-eyed, and to argue the merits of "Lost in Translation." I’m with you Rog. I love it.

In death, Ebert has been life-affirming. To honor the big fella, I recommend taking a spin through his website, opening up any chapter in Life Itself, and then checking out the film this summer. My favorite moment is when his voice-over double says, "Look at a movie a lot of people love, and you’ll find something matter how silly the film may seem." It plays over a clip of "This is Spinal Tap."

Hello, Cleveland! Goodbye, Roger. Thanks for the memories and know, because of your humanity and conscientiousness, the balcony will remain forever open.