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Word of his illness did not surprise his readers. Most of a newspaper's most popular recurring features—its top columnists and most beloved comic strips—can vanish for days at a time before readers even notice. But readers turned to Ebert as they turned to no one else, and for the past few weeks other people were writing the film reviews in the Friday Sun-Times. It didn't matter who they were—none was the critic we opened those pages to find. Something was wrong.
I read many Ebert reviews twice—once while deciding whether to go to a movie and then again after I'd seen it. The second reading was the more rewarding, because Ebert's great strength was not so much in writing consumer reports on movies as in holding conversations with himself about them, and when a movie has just had its way with you, a conversation is what you're looking for. Decades ago, when he was a young man at the Sun-Times and film occupied a far more commanding place in American popular culture that it does today, Ebert simply reigned in the newsroom. No one could talk more easily on a high plane than he could. And his references for movies weren't other movies. They were taken from the life beyond the movie house that not every film critic lives. Ebert was one of us. He just had a neater job.
I've written twice at length about Ebert. In 2011, I discussed his memoir, Life Itself. "Its most compelling quality," I wrote, "is its comfort with the nearness of death." And in 1998, when it seemed to me Ebert had become known primarily as a TV personality, I asked him if he'd like to talk about himself as a newspaperman. He jumped at the invitation.
He said to me, "One of my editors suggested to me a few months ago, 'Wouldn't you like to take on a young intern and get some help on the beat?' I said, 'No, I wouldn't.' As long as I can, I want to be the movie critic. I met Paul Theroux last fall—he was on the jury of the Hawaii film festival. We were talking about his latest book, which is called My Other Life. . . . There's a chapter in there about writing. His wife and his kids go off to school—this was in London, when he was still married to that wife—and he has a room on the second floor, under the eaves, with a view over some rooftops in the back of some row houses in London. And he sits at his desk looking out over them, and he writes. At a certain time he has his cup of tea, and then he writes some more. Then it's time for lunch. He said when he started writing he was writing so people would know his name, he would be famous, and he'd be able to meet girls and make money and see his books on the shelves, and because he had something he wanted to express and he felt maybe his contribution was important. These were all ideas that he had. And now—he's 50 years old—he realizes the real reason he writes is to write. And I know what that means. When I'm actually writing—not when I'm getting ready to write or I'm researching or I'm doing an interview, when I'm thinking about it—I am content. I am happy."