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Pick of the day: Roger Ebert struggles with cancer

When we conjure an image of the film critic Roger Ebert, I presume many of us imagine him as the fat guy sparring with the skinny Gene Siskel in their television show "Siskel & Ebert." The duo became famous for doing something we all take for granted now: the thumbs up/thumbs down review.

Siskel has been dead since 1999, and, now, Ebert is skinny himself, ravaged by thyroid cancer that has spread throughout his body and has required multiple surgeries; three years ago, when the disease spread to his jaw, doctors had to cut a hole through his throat, which disabled his voice. The film critic, who implanted himself in the minds of so many as an ardent film lover, can no longer speak. He can, though, write.

In a story published this week online at, Chris Jones profiles Ebert in his debilitated state, showing him at a screening, at a party with fellow reporters, and at home with his wife Chaz. The photographs are heartbreaking: Ebert's face is slackened, severe indentations and lines misshaping his once familiar, jolly countenance. Even if you don't like movies or don't care much for Ebert, if you've had someone close to you diagnosed with cancer, this piece will pull at you. Jones elegantly describes all the aspects of his new life, showing how the cancer has transformed Ebert's physique, behavior, and the way his healthy friends react around him.

Three successive paragraphs in the middle of the Esquire piece stuck out for me. The first of the three felt wrong, and the two immediately following felt so real and painful.

We have a habit of turning sentimental about celebrities who are struck down — Muhammad Ali, Christopher Reeve — transforming them into mystics; still, it's almost impossible to sit beside Roger Ebert, lifting blue Post-it notes from his silk fingertips, and not feel as though he's become something more than he was. He has those hands. And his wide and expressive eyes, despite everything, are almost always smiling.

It was here where I felt like Jones was straining to find something uplifting to say about Ebert's new life; but Ebert is clearly less than what he was, and, attempts to inflate his new existence feel like spin.

Jones then writes this:

There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.

In fact, because he's missing sections of his jaw, and because he's lost some of the engineering behind his face, Ebert can't really do anything but smile. It really does take more muscles to frown, and he doesn't have those muscles anymore. His eyes will water and his face will go red — but if he opens his mouth, his bottom lip will sink most deeply in the middle, pulled down by the weight of his empty chin, and the corners of his upper lip will stay raised, frozen in place. Even when he's really angry, his open smile mutes it: The top half of his face won't match the bottom half, but his smile is what most people will see first, and by instinct they will smile back. The only way Ebert can show someone he's mad is by writing in all caps on a Post-it note or turning up the volume on his speakers. Anger isn't as easy for him as it used to be. Now his anger rarely lasts long enough for him to write it down.

By Ian Shapira  | February 18, 2010; 12:42 PM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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