The great movie critic Roger Ebert died today after a lengthy battle with cancer. It’s not often I’m personally touched by the passing of a “celebrity,” but Roger Ebert was first and foremost a writer, and someone into whose orbit I was inexorably but briefly pulled one day back in March 2006.
A young Roger Ebert in 1970
Seven years ago, Roger Ebert posted a review of V for Vendetta, observing:
Britain is ruled by a man named Sutler, who gives orders to his underlings from a wall-sized TV screen and seems the personification of Big Brother.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of my favorite books, and the movie starring John Hurt is one of my favorite literary adaptations in cinema. So when I saw that John Hurt was playing Sutler, I thought Mr. Ebert had missed something. I hit the Send Feedback link and wrote a brief email:
Although you compared John Hurt’s character to Big Brother in your review of “V for Vendetta,” I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t note the irony inherent in the fact that Hurt played Winston Smith in “1984.” I think it was a brilliant piece of stunt casting.
I never expected a reply. But a few minutes later, I got this amusing response from Roger Ebert himself:
Ohmigod. You;re right!
A few minutes later, he replied again:
I have now incorporated your insight into the review, for which I thank you.
I went back to the review, and Ebert had added:
And is: Sutler is played by John Hurt, who in fact played Winston Smith in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984).
I wrote Roger back:
Excellent! We all have our little obsessions, and “1984” is one of mine.
All the best,
Again Roger replied:
I love the whole of Orwell — all his novels, and those four thick volumes gathering his miscellaneous writings.
I was so tempted to continue talking movies and literature with the world-famous Roger Ebert in more and more of these brief exchanges, but I didn’t want to seem obsessive — even though I was giddily forwarding these little emails to all my friends and doing little dances at the office.
Exactly three months later, Roger underwent the first surgery that removed his ability to speak. The ultimate writer (the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, back in 1975), he quickly turned to the web, embracing RogerEbert.com more than ever, along with the nascent social media boom. The written word became his voice, and his fan base grew and grew even as he mostly retired from public view.
I hear people today talking about how much he interacted with fans and engaged with them intellectually since his illness, but it’s obvious to me that Roger Ebert was doing exactly that long before Twitter or Facebook.
Roger Ebert loved what he did, and loved to share his passion with like-minded people — movie buffs, writers, and readers of great literature. For one afternoon seven years ago, I found myself sharing my love of George Orwell with the great and wonderful Roger Ebert.
The world of film will be a dimmer place without him.