Gire laments loss of 'titan,' friend Roger Ebert
Chicago has lost a titan.
I have lost a colleague and a friend.
Today, as it must to all men, death came to Roger Ebert.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times died after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 70 years old.
Just two days ago, Ebert announced he would be taking a "leave of presence" from his film duties while undergoing radiation treatment for cancer.
Thyroid and salivary gland cancer required several surgeries during the past few years. Doctors discovered the cancer had returned after Ebert fractured his hip last fall.
Many qualities defined Roger Ebert: intelligence, wit, compassion and humor. But if I had to choose a single defining element to describe him, it would be fearlessness.
Utter, absolute, ridiculous fearlessness.
We all saw this quality after he underwent surgery for a cancerous growth in his mouth. The operation removed his lower jaw, took away his power of speech, radically altered his physical appearance and even affected his ability to walk.
When Ebert recovered and prepared to return to his chair in the last row of the Lake Street Screening Room, all the people who cared about him shouted, "Don't do it, Roger!"
"They will make fun of your appearance!" they warned.
"You'll be the butt of jokes on late-night TV!" they screeched.
Ebert replied, so what?
Then he wrote stories about his fight with cancer, and published unflattering photos of his post-surgery self, accompanied by a line borrowed from a Martin Scorsese movie: "I ain't no pretty boy no more."
Ebert battered down a dark door of societal perception so that others less confident about their physical afflictions might feel more accepted in public.
Long before this, he had already been bustin' down doors like Eliot Ness on a hooch raid.
This son of Illinois, born in Urbana, forged a reputation for standing up for himself, and, in a display of his strong Midwestern roots, standing up for others, regardless of the cost.
I am reminded of the time when the Darth Vader of the Sun-Times empire, Conrad Black, dispatched an email to Ebert expressing indignation that the newspaper's film critic would dare to bite the hand that feeds him, and feeds him quite well.
In the 2004 email, Black mentioned the $500,000 the Sun-Times pays its film critic, a fortune for any newspaper journalist writing about the arts. (Ebert later wrote me a note saying the salary was "inflated.")
In the leaked email, Black chastised the critic for accepting his salary, then publicly attacking his boss for such things as failing to maintain the Sun-Times building and making employees low priorities.
Here was the Sun-Times employee with the most to lose, yet Ebert became the first to jump into the trenches and fight for the rank and file.
See? Ridiculously fearless.
I discovered Ebert's prolific writings when I was a communications major at Eastern Illinois University in downstate Charleston. Ebert didn't write like the critics from New York and Los Angeles. His reviews were bold and direct, and, yes, courageous in their analysis. I marveled at the way he custom-crafted leads to capture the essence of each movie he wrote about.
Most critics lecture. Ebert discussed.
And he continued the discussion for 46 years -- an amazing run that included being the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005. Locally, he won the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism many times in the arts and on-line categories. He was named to the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame and has been honored with a medallion in front of the Chicago Theatre.
Ebert's writing career took off in Chicago, and it wasn't long before he became a national celebrity.
In 1975, Ebert teamed with his Chicago Tribune nemesis, the late Gene Siskel, to review movies on television as the hosts of PBS' "At a Theater Near You." It evolved into a series of syndicated programs broadcast by WGN, CBS and ABC.
The critics' signature gesture of "two thumbs-up" became a registered trademark and a sought-after symbol of critical approval in the movie world.
Neither critic conformed to TV executives' idea of a telegenic presence. Ebert went on the air with his large horned rim glasses atop a much larger body. Early on, one critic referred to him as "a block of concrete with headlights."
Oh, yes, because common TV "wisdom" said that regular-looking print journalists didn't belong in broadcast, a business run by hair gel and Q-factors. Ebert and Siskel broke down another door by being their print journalist selves, not manufactured TV entities.
Ebert's most recent brush with fearlessness came much slower, as he transcended the boundaries of film criticism and evolved into Forbes magazine's "most powerful pundit in America." He earned the title by providing informed and passionate insights into current events, and by taking on mass media ideological bullies and professional dimwits.
His career stretched into many disciplines. He wrote 17 books, as well as the controversial script for Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." (He and the late filmmaker became lifelong friends.) Ebert's own autobiography "Life Itself: A Memoir" is being made into a film by one of Ebert's favorite directors, Martin Scorsese.
His favorite movie was Orson Welles' classic "Citizen Kane." Ebert's car bears the license plate "ROZEBUD," (Someone claimed "ROSEBUD" before he did.)
In 1992, Ebert married Chicago attorney Chaz Hammelsmith, who has been by his side through his recent health crisis. She has many times represented her husband at major film events, including hosting the annual Overlooked Film Festival (nicknamed EbertFest) in downstate Champaign.
Celebrities and colleagues alike paid tribute to Ebert in the hours after his death Thursday. Even President Obama released a statement: "For a generation of Americans -- and especially Chicagoans -- Roger was the movies. When he didn't like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive -- capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical."
For more than 30 years, I have sat in a small dark room with Roger Ebert, most recently in the Lake Street Screening Room in Chicago's Loop.
Today, a seat in the Lake Street Screening Room remains empty.
And the balcony is closed.