Roger Ebert Spent His Last Weeks Doing His Favorite Thing: Reviewing Movies

On Thursday, Roger Ebert, the internationally acclaimed film, book, and TV writer passed away from cancer that had spread from his thyroid to his legs and hip.

Leaving behind a fabled career at the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert will be remembered as one of the most famous film critics of all time.

Ebert’s death comes right before the display of Ebertfest, a tribute annual film festival celebrating it’s 15th year, planned to show from April 17-21 at his alma mater, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. In line with his free-thinking attitude, Ebert had planned to work on a project of a movie version of a video game, open to feedback on whether viewers saw it as art or faux-pas. 

Awarded the Pulitzer Price for Criticism, Ebert’s enthusiasm and inventiveness in the film world lives up to his legacy. In 1969, he wrote his first review for the Night of the Living Dead for Reader’s Digest. Rather that writing about the content, Ebert focused on the audience, “There were maybe two dozen people in the audience who were over 16 years old.” This is reflective of Ebert’s conscientious attention to detail – how reactions to film can shape it’s narrative, and in turn, it’s ranking. Ebert described this approach as “relative, not absolute,” and gave even half stars to movies he disliked as long as they were aligned with his moral compass. His generosity in film reflected his generosity and caring as a person in real life.

However, this did not hold him back from criticism where criticism was due. In response to the Rob Reiner comedy North, Ebert blatantly responded, “I hated this movie … Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.” What some call wit, Ebert referred to as honesty in his writing.

Ebert was known for his avant garde approach to producing films alongside his reviews of them. In 1970 he produced the controversial Beyond the Valley of Dolls which has, perhaps due to his appeal, become a cult classic. He also produced the Sex Pistol’s film Who Killed Bambi?, inciting shock and criticism from reviewers but ultimate audience appeal. 

Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, which later spread to his salivary glands in 2003. It did not stop him from attending every film opening he was invited to.

In 2006 the cancer returned, this time in his jaw. After a near brush with death, he recovered. He spent the next few years unable to eat or speak, using a feeding tube and bedridden. Ebert made a come-back in 2007, with his first review being for The Queen. While he was unable to speak at the 2006 Ebertfest, he communicated through the use of notes and the help of his wife’s translations. By mid-2007 he was back to writing 5-6 film reviews a week.

In early 2013, the cancer spread to his hip and legs. After multiple surgeries, Ebert went on leave from film reviewing to recovery from radiation therapy and surgery. In his final days, he was able to review only films he wanted to, "So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness." 

Roger Ebert passed with a closing blog post to his dedicated fans and followers, “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.”