When I want to read great writing, I go to the men’s magazines. They’re the ones with the kind of intense, stirring pieces that last in your memory long afterwards, where in between pictures of models and write-ups of cars, there are incredible profiles of actors and writers and artists that reveal something new with every read. It was in GQ where an interview with a grieving Michelle Williams made the years-old death of Heath Ledger feel new and raw; inDetails, a piece on Ben Affleck revived my respect for a man who’d lost it long ago. And it was in Esquire, back in early 2010, where I read a story on Roger Ebert so powerful and brave that I saved the issue for months afterwards, re-reading it often in the hopes of finding a sentence unseen, a word unnoticed, an emotion unfelt.
That piece mattered to me for reasons I couldn’t identify, at first. I loved movies, yes, but I barely knew Roger Ebert, recognizing the name only because of a handful of reviews I’d recently perused. I’d never seen At the Movies or read The Chicago Sun-Times; the only reason I’d even read the Esquire article at all was because it happened to be open on my kitchen table. I began the piece planning to skim the pages, the only expectation being the hopeful addition of a few films to my must-see list. Yet I found myself pouring over every word, mesmerized by writer Chris Jones’ portrayal of a man who’d gone through so much only to come back on the other side more alive than ever. I stared at the pictures of Ebert’s disfigured face, captivated by their poignancy. His musings on film and life were witty and tender and honest all at once, painting a portrait of a person who’d seen it all and yet still had so much more to say. When Jones wrote about Ebert’s storied career, I ached with jealousy; when Ebert spoke of his battles with alcohol, cancer, and, now, adjusting to life without speech, I humbled with respect. The article startled me in the best possible way, its remarkable writing and striking portrait filling me with urgency.
In the time since I first read the Esquire piece, I have followed every moment of Ebert’s life and career. I have laughed at his witty, often provocative Tweets, have vehemently agreed or disagreed with his passionate reviews, and have read Life, Itself, his 2011 memoir. It was this last work that solidified the already deep connection I felt to him, its wise, frank essays on film, faith and friendship resonating with me deeply. I, too, hated high school math and all things athletic, wrote for the school newspaper and printed my own magazines, and gravitated towards writing less out of interest and more out of necessity. When Ebert discussed the cancer that caused him to lose part of his face along with the abilities to eat, drink, and speak, I recognized his fear, understanding the use of humor and wit to mask the anxiety of beginning a life anew. With every piece of Ebert’s life that I unveiled, I felt our bond grow stronger, so grateful to have finally found the person who’d lived the life I hoped to emulate.
Today, Roger Ebert passed away. I don’t yet know the cause or any other detail. It was only yesterday that he announced he would be taking a break from reviewing films to focus on his health. Like so many others, I am shocked and saddened, so deeply devastated by his death. Ebert wasn’t simply a movie reviewer; he was an idol, an inspiration, a friend. I may never have met him, but that’s irrelevant. For his many devoted readers, the bond we shared with him through reading his masterful writing transcended the barrier between celebrity and fan. Ebert connected with his readers on a level unheard of by most other writers. The fact that he managed to maintain this tie despite the loss of the voice that made him famous is astonishing, but I can’t say I’m surprised. If anyone could do it, Ebert could.
Over the course of the next few days, details will leak out about what caused Ebert’s death. There will be obituaries and tributes, best-of lists and remembrances. Critics, writers, and fans will unite to celebrate the life of a legend, a man so remarkable that, at the film-focused college I attend, there’s already a petition circulating around the school requesting a moment of silence in his honor. Take note: the majority of students here were born in the early ‘90s and grew up in an At the Movies-less world; most likely, they fell in love with Ebert through his written work, proving that even in the age of TVs and smartphones, people will still take the time to read great writing. It’s a terrible shame that Ebert is gone, but oh, what a legacy he’s left behind.
This article was originally published on TheReelist.com.