I recently saw Life Itself, the documentary about Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert’s life. The most remarkable thing about this film wasn’t any of Ebert’s achievements but his willingness to be filmed as he was dying of cancer. His face had been disfigured by the removal of his jawbone, but he looks cheerfully into the camera, making no effort to hide the ravages of disease. The camera is also present shortly after he and his wife have received word the cancer has metastasized; they discuss this development with the interviewer even before they have even absorbed it and consulted with each other. Many in our culture hesitate to reveal physical imperfections at the beach or gym, much less to millions of moviegoers. The Eberts are to be commended for their openness.
At one point late in his life, Roger says that he is the same person as he was when, in his early 20s he started writing movie reviews. I think he means by this that he had the same view of film and of the critic’s role throughout his entire life. There were other constancies—he was always sociable and fun-loving, and was big-hearted, displaying generosity of spirit. In other ways, though, he had become a much different person:
- As a young man, he drank heavily, frequenting O’Rourke’s Bar, a local hang-out, every night. Alcohol increasingly became a problem for him, though, and he quit drinking in 1979.
- He was a long-time bachelor who apparently loved the ladies. He introduced himself to Chaz, his wife-to-be, while eating at a restaurant after an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting. They married when he was 50, and, for the last 20 years of his life, he was devoted to her.
- Having been a doted-on only child, then achieving considerable success before age 30, Roger was egotistical and became petulant when he didn’t get his way. Then he was paired on television with Gene Siskel, movie reviewer for the rival Chicago Tribune, who wouldn’t back down when Roger tried to argue him into submission. Over the years, their antagonism towards each other turned into friendship, and Roger came to live more comfortably around other large egos who resisted his powers of persuasion.
What strikes me about all of these changes is that Roger didn’t seek them, and, with the first and third, probably resisted them. Yet he found himself changing anyway, and ended up a wiser, more affectionate, and less selfish man than he had been. Life (or, more likely, God wielding life experiences) prods us to change, until we eventually relent. Only the most stubborn among us manage to markedly slow the process, and even then we can’t stop it entirely. As Neil Gaiman put it in The Graveyard Book, “You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”