If you are like me, the first thing you thought about when you read that the Chicago Sun-Times was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection was this: what would that mean for Roger Ebert? To be more specific, what would that mean for our ability to read Ebert from now on?
Last week, Matt Dillon and I presented our film Nothing But the Truth at his annual Ebertfest. The single loudest moment of applause came during the discussion session following the film when Roger promised that even if the Sun-Times went under, he would continue to write about film and whatever else he damn well pleased on his blog. If his throat cancer -- devastating and unforgiving -- has not been able to stop him, then nothing as petty as the collapse of one of the nation's stalwart journalistic enterprises was going to either.
Nothing But the Truth is a journalistic thriller that is set during the end of days for print media. In December of last year the film's distributor itself fell victim to the economic crisis and also had to declare Chapter 11. After a slew of the best reviews I have ever received as a writer/director and nominations from the Broadcast Critics for Best Actress (Kate Beckinsale) and Best Supporting Actress (Vera Farmiga), Nothing But the Truth never got an actual release. No poster was even printed. It was deader than Lenin.
All of that didn't sit well with Ebert, a man who loves movies and loves newspapers. He was very kind to the film, which he started to write about during the Toronto Film Festival. He decided to do what he could to get the movie seen. Next thing we knew, Nothing But the Truth was projected on the massive screen at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign/Urbana in advance of its DVD release. 1600 wildly enthusiastic movie lovers watched the film that night. If I have ever had greater professional satisfaction, I can't recall it.
Ebert introduced the film with the help of a computer generated voice that he calls Sir Laurence. It doesn't sound quite like Olivier to me, though. It was more like Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs or even HAL 9000. In any case, Ebert's speech was full of the same old wit and wisdom that he so affably spread when he was on television. The audience gave him a standing ovation. No surprise there.
During the film, he was responding as much as anybody, slapping his hand on the armrest when a laugh would normally register and clapping loudly during any exciting moment. (A La-Z-Boy recliner has been installed in the theater for his benefit.) He wasn't going to give up that thrill of cinema which is physically manifested by the audience.
This all registered with me with a special profoundness. I have followed his writing since I was a teenager. When I was 14, I sent him a letter asking for his ten best of all time list. He wrote me back. In longhand. That's a mensch for you (Citizen Kane was number one, I remember). He is the one critic who can convince me to see films that everybody else hates because he has a unique sense of finding hidden talent and hidden value. Whenever I have a film coming out, his is the one opinion I take personally. When he has given me a smack here and there I have deserved it. Before Ebertfest, I had met him only twice -- once, when he was a guest on my radio show (during my film critic days) and then when he briefly interviewed Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, and me at the Toronto Film festival where we premiered a film called The Contender.
The hell that Ebert has gone through is unquestionable. And yet, he is more Ebert now than ever. He writes and he writes and he writes. Truthfully, his age alone (67) would have sent most people into retirement. But I think it is safe to say that Ebert is now writing more than ever before. There are his reviews. There are the Movie Answer Man columns. There is his occasional Great Movies column. There are his books -- he just put one out on the work of Scorcese. And then there are his blogs that run the gamut from God to politics (allow me now to point out how courageous Ebert's first partner in crime -- Gene Siskel -- was when he was battling cancer himself -- taping a show up until a week before he passed away).
Ebert now communicates by writing on a small pad. Matt Dillon and I were peppering him with questions. Matt wanted to know who his favorite directors were (I think I saw Hawks, Huston, and Keaton on the list), I asked him what movie has he never seen that everybody would have expected to have come under his gaze (The Sound of Music). I joked with him that his handwriting must have really improved over the past few years. His wife Chaz agreed with that one. She told me that in years past he had the penmanship of a doctor.
As I watched him write his answers -- and he did it with zeal and pleasure -- it struck me that his pen had become an IV to him. His lifeblood.
Much of Ebert's ability to fight on is due, no doubt, to his equally amazing wife. Chaz is a pretty brilliant woman in her own right. She has now become a loving extension of her husband -- her presence at Ebertfest was as distinct as Roger's.
Not long ago I was talking to my teenage kids about what it was that constituted a "real man." I'll tell you this -- you can look at all the masculine toughies you want -- the Ben Roethlisbergers, the Russell Crowes, the David Petraeuses -- but if you want to look at what a man should be -- persevering, honest, a person who manifests his intellect into action -- you need look no further than Roger Ebert.