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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Roger Ebert on Esquire's profile of him: 'I got a jolt'

February 19, 2010 | 12:30 pm

There are really only two words you need to describe Roger Ebert: indispensable, which would apply to his four decades of brilliant essays and criticism; and indomitable, which would apply to how he's handled his past few years of debilitating physical struggles.

Roger-ebert-jaw-cancer-photo-esquire-0310-lg-thumb-240x290-17913 If you haven't read Esquire's current profile of the 67-year-old Chicago Sun-Times critic, you should carve out the time to do it. Written by Chris Jones, it is both sensitive and unsentimental, especially in the way it describes Ebert's battles with a series of cancer surgeries that caused him to spend more than half of a 30-month stretch in hospitals. A mere shell of himself physically, he still manages to work nonstop -- he saw 281 movies in a 10-month stretch last year -- even though he is now unable to speak and is fed via a G-tube through a hole in his stomach.

But he's a writer, so he keeps writing and writing, better and better than ever. His reviews remain a must-read, as are his blog posts, which range from acerbic political observations to delightful personal remembrances of his youth. After reading the Esquire piece, I suspected that Ebert would be unable to resist offering his own personal reaction to the story. And sure enough, it's up on his blog now, and is just as absorbing as the original Esquire feature.

For Ebert, his life is now an open book and it feels especially refreshing, in our image-obsessed age, to hear him speak so plainly about his insecurities and imperfections. He makes it clear that he admired Jones' piece, especially the graceful writing, though he admits that "I got a jolt from the full-page photograph of my jaw dropping. Not a lovely sight. But then I am not a lovely sight, and in a moment I thought, well, what the hell, it's just as well it's out there. That's how I look, after all .... Running [the photo] that big was good journalism. It made you want to read the article."

For me, the best thing about Ebert's response was getting a glimpse of his own private thought processes. For example, when Jones was due to arrive, Ebert noticed that the bound albums of the wedding photos of him with his wife, Chaz, were sitting out in the living room. "When Chris was about to arrive and I was a little nervous, I told Chaz, 'for God's sake, don't start showing him our wedding photos! That will make us look bourgeois.' She looked at me in disbelief. 'What makes you think I would ever show him our wedding photos?' "

Ebert proceeds to confess that Jones had barely been on the premises for half an hour before the conversation turned to Gene Siskel, Ebert's old "At the Movies" partner and pal -- there are still photos of the late critic all over the Eberts' brownstone. Ebert told Jones what a close friendship the two men had.     " 'His daughters were even the flower girls at our wedding,' I said. 'Chaz, show Chris our wedding photos.' She looked at me like the eighth wonder of the world." Ebert later explained that he was as open as Siskel was secretive, so open that Siskel had once said Ebert's middle names should be Full Disclosure. In that spirit, Chaz impishly proceeded to tell Jones about Ebert's dire warning about the wedding photos.

If Ebert has any regrets about laying out the distressing particulars of his life these days, he's keeping them to himself, which, knowing him, seems an unlikely proposition. As a journalist, I sometimes get complimented when I've written a story that feels true to life, so I know how much it must mean to Jones when Ebert concludes that "I was a little surprised at the detail the article went into about the nature and extent of my wounds and the realities of my appearance, but what the hell. It was true. I don't need polite fictions.... The more interviews you've done, the more you appreciate a good one."

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