Roger Ebert is one of those people I thought would be around forever, because after all I’ve been watching him since I was a kid, when he and Gene Siskel were hosting Sneak Previews in the late 1970s. It was a little shocking when Siskel died in 1999, but also reassuring (I thought) that Ebert kept their film review show going afterwards. Other than graying hair, Ebert didn’t seem to change very much over the years. I can’t say I was ever a “true fan”, since I didn’t follow his columns (even on the Web), nor watch his show every week (though I’d sometimes watch one if I came across it). Nothing against him, but I’m not truly a film buff, and in fact I’ve spent more time in the last decade watching films made before I was born than films made after I was born. Still, like any other enduring public figure who’s been there for most of your life, you get used to the lack of change.
I came across Ebert’s blog a year or two ago and had read about him having had throat cancer. His picture on his blog showed him with his hands palms-together in front of his face, covering much of his lower face. But other than looking thinner, he basically looked like the same guy.
The picture, it seems, is several years old, as I learned by reading this amazing profile of Roger Ebert in Esquire, which includes a head shot of Ebert as he looks today: He no longer has a lower jaw bone, and cannot eat or talk. And, obviously, he looks quite different. If you cover the bottom of his head, then he looks basically the same as he always has. But the difference of the totality is striking.
I’m not sure why the photo is so fascinating to me. I usually shy away from pictures like this (for example, the seemingly-omnipresent ads in the paper to donate to help children with cleft palates always cause me to turn the page immediately), but not this one. With the equally bewitching article, I think it makes me think that this sort of thing – although rare – could happen to anyone. Ebert seems to deal with it as well as anyone could hope for, at least from the view from the outside: Last month he wrote an entry about not being able to eat, where he seems to be philosophical about it. I’m sure it’s been terrifying for him at times – but you can’t be terrified constantly.
This month Ebert wrote a follow-up to the Esquire article, and it’s also a fascinating read (and has additional pictures). He seems a little surprised that he’s exposed his home life as much as he has, as if he knew intellectually what inviting the writer into his home to write the profile meant, but until he saw it he hadn’t realized it emotionally.
It’s the final paragraph in the blog post that gripped me the most:
I studiously avoid looking at myself in a mirror. It would not be productive. If we think we have physical imperfections, obsessing about them is only destructive.
I don’t think I could do that. I don’t know if I’d be able to deal with it as well as Ebert seems to be. Then again, maybe you deal with it because it’s better than the alternative.