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Film critic Roger Ebert arrives to attend the Webby Awards in New York on June 14, 2010. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
Film critic Roger Ebert arrives to attend the Webby Awards in New York on June 14, 2010. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

Johanna Schneller: Festivalgoer

Unspooling the story of Roger Ebert's life Add to ...

You’ll probably run into Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and TV personality of four decades, at least once in the next 10 days, as he swoops in from his native Chicago to attend the Toronto International Film Festival. Maybe you’ll pass him on “the escalator of terror,” as he calls the steep lift up to the Scotiabank Theatre. He won’t be able to speak to you, unfortunately – thyroid cancer and its treatments have robbed him of his lower jaw, along with his ability to eat or talk. But he’ll make some agreeable sign or other, and his steadfast spouse, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, likely will be on hand to interpret.

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Ebert, 69, has been coming to TIFF since its beginning, and this year he’s bringing something extra – his new memoir, Life Itself, which hits bookstores Sept. 13. It’s a warm, open wander through his life as a student (in Chicago and Cape Town), newspaper man (in the days when the building shook as the presses rolled), drinker (wild nights in subterranean Chicago bars), traveller (he remembers every walk he ever took), ex-drinker as of 1979 (he attended the second through the sixth Alcoholics Anonymous meetings of his life in Toronto during TIFF that year), cancer survivor (he had to learn to walk four separate times), and admirer of women (self-explanatory). In print, his voice is both jokier and more contemplative than the bulldoggish debater we’ve come to know on his TV shows. It presents a man who values memories, rituals and silly jokes, but who never wallows in self-pity.

For example, numerous operations to repair Ebert’s jaw failed, and he tried wearing a prosthesis. “But I dunno, I was happier with my own face, troubled as it was,” he said last week in an e-mail exchange. “There are no metaphors for not eating or speaking. There is only the reality.”

You may be surprised by what’s not in the book, however – much of anything about going to movies. The countless hours Ebert spent in the dark watching film unspool occupy only a few paragraphs here and there. “It's a memoir, not a book about the cinema,” he said. “When I write I find myself in the ‘zone,’ and say I'm taking dictation from that place inside that tells me the words.”

The zone has a remarkable memory. Ebert grew up as an only child in Urbana, Ill. His dad, an electrician for the University of Illinois, and his mother, a secretary (both now deceased), took him to his first movie, the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races, and sent him to Catholic grade school, where, he said, “the emphasis on mortality” gave him a life-long, keen awareness of the passing of time. As a self-professed high-school know-it-all, he started writing for newspapers and never stopped. He arrived at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966, and in 1967, his bosses made him the movie critic. “ ‘The movie generation’ made the cover of Time,” he said. “I had written features on the movies. I was young. I needed a haircut. Case closed.”

He’s much more romantic about the newspaper world than that of movies. His book brims with stories about the controlled chaos of the open newsroom and his cynical yet idealistic colleagues. My favourite anecdote involves advice columnist Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers to readers) and TV-radio critic Paul Molloy, who sat side by side in the thick of everything.

“Once Paul was talking on a telephone headset, tilted back in his chair, and fell to the floor and kept on talking,” Ebert writes. “Eppie reached in a file drawer and handed down her pamphlet ‘Drinking Problem? Take This Test of Handy Questions.’ ” Ebert, a natural observer, longed to be one of them, “a newspaper character, storyteller, raconteur, legend in his own mind. Just an all-around great guy,” he said, adding dryly, “There were some who disagreed.”

But being one of them included drinking with them, and Ebert is frank about his love/hate affair with alcohol. “I had some good times,” he said. “What I couldn't take were the hangovers, the remorse, the guilt, the evasions, the general physical and mental unease, which only more drinking seemed to cure. Stopping was the only solution … But [drinking]played a role in my life. It broadened my experience. I have many to thank and no one but myself to blame.”

Acknowledging his alcoholism also led to acknowledging that of both his parents. His father had quit drinking before Ebert was born, and his mother didn’t start until he left home, so his childhood was relatively unscathed. Still, he says that he couldn’t have written this book while she was alive. “I love her and am grateful to her,” Ebert said, “but I wanted to be honest about the problems we had. If neither one of us had ever taken a drink, we would not have had those problems.”

As a critic, Ebert wrote in a first-person, populist style that would transition well to TV. “All reviews are subjective,” he said. “One must admit it. I may be populist, but I write for a smart populace. I try to be a friend describing an experience he just had.” In his book, he laments that his life “has been devoted in such large part to films of worthlessness.” But by e-mail, he added, “My work is not worthless if I save someone from wasting two hours of life. Or if through reviewing bad movies I create an appetite for better ones.”

What interests Ebert most are the people who make films, an eclectic collection including Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Russ Meyer and Martin Scorsese. “I love the ones who rarely disappoint me,” Ebert said. “Who are heartfelt in their work. I've spoken with remarkable people: Ingmar Bergman, Jeanne Moreau, Werner Herzog, Alfred Hitchcock … I could list dozens.” On one memorable day, he and his late TV partner Gene Siskel separately interviewed Dolly Parton, “and we discovered that we had both felt an actual feeling of elevation,” Ebert said. “As if she had healing powers. I don't subscribe to New Age woo-woo. I am simply reporting this. It was an uplifting essence.”

There is one film that Ebert “checks in with every 10 years”: Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. “In 1962, it was a life I could only dream of,” he said. “In 1972, it was a life I was living. In 1982, it was a life I had escaped from. In 1992, it was part of my past. In 2002, it was a history of those decades. So it goes.” See you at the pictures.

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