Roger Ebert in Toronto: A Close Encounter

Thanks to the Toronto International Film Festival, I have the chance to encounter the legend. It’s only natural that wherever there are films, there are film critics. But I never would have thought that I would see Roger Ebert in person and shake hands with him.

It was pure serendipity. While browsing in Indigo on Bay Street, I noticed a sign saying Roger Ebert would be in that store signing his memoir Life Itself a few days later. I’d followed his reviews since his “Siskel and Ebert” days, the two-thumbs-up duo. By the way, Ebert’s right thumb up had been trademarked. Reviewing films for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, Roger Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism (1975), prolific all the way till his last two days.

Roger Ebert autograph Life Itself

This was not just about an autograph, or seeing a celebrity up close. It was about seeing a man who after torturous cancer treatments and surgeries for his thyroid, salivary gland and jaw, had lost a part of his face and the ability to talk and eat, and yet still maintained his humor and passions, who continued to press on to new ventures… this was about seeing life itself.

In the late afternoon on September 14, 2011, at the signing area in Indigo Books on Bay Street, people had been lining up for over an hour. I was one of them. At 7 pm, Roger came in walking slowly and with aid. He came on stage and faced the crowd. Together with his wife Chaz, they gave us a wave. Then he sat down and began signing. Photographs were allowed except for the rule of no posing. The Q & A session also began.

Chaz was his voice. She was personable and a film lover herself. She shared some of her views of the TIFF selections. As executive producer of “Ebert Presents at the Movies”, Chaz answered some questions without consulting Roger. But for most questions addressed to Roger, he would write on a small spiral notebook, handed it to Chaz to read out his answer.

Here are some of the notes I’d taken:

* Who influenced you the most?
He pointed to his wife standing behind him.

* Which decade is your favorite?
The 70’s… where you had The Godfather, Raging Bull…

* Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
Buster Keaton, albeit both are great.

* 3D?
Don’t ask. Story is number one.

* CGI (computer-generated imagery)?
Movies with CGI are soulless.

* All time best?
Citizen Kane.

* Favorite actor?
Robert Mitchum.

* Contemporary?
Al Pacino, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tilda Swinton

* Favorite Canadian directors?
Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Norman Jewison, Guy Maddin (thumb up)

* James Cameron?
Is James Cameron Canadian? Chaz asked in surprise.

* Favorite book?
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Canadian! A voice came from the back)

* Any pressure from movie producers to write a good review?
No, he hasn’t been pressured. He was beyond reproach, Chaz answered.

* Any movies you haven’t seen?
The Sound of Music

* If there’s a movie made about you, who’d you want to play you?
Philip Seymour Hoffman. Chaz added, Oprah to play me. Diana Ross would be good too.

* Advice for potential film critics?
Do you want to get paid? Roger answered with a question.
Yes and no. The questioner covered all bases.
Start blogging. Roger replied.

* How does your life influence the way you review a film?
It generates every word.

Definitely more than just an autograph. What an encounter. What a night.


CLICK HERE to listen to an interview of Roger Ebert on CBC Radio during TIFF. Roger used a text-to-voice software as his speaking voice.


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “Roger Ebert in Toronto: A Close Encounter”

  1. Oh wonderful!

    I’m so happy for you. I used to enjoy his reviews. But when he had his experience with cancer and began a life without his jaw, with an artificial voice, I learned who he really is. Interesting how essentials float to the surface after the “cosmic two-by-four” strikes.

    Cool what he said about being a blogger film critic. 😉

    And wha?? He never saw The Sound of Music?? It’s one of my favorites, seen it so many times.

    Great experience and post, yay!

    Thanks Ruth… glad you’re excited too! It was quite an experience. For someone from Cowtown, I’d say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. But you know, it’s the advice and insights that you get from him personally that’s valuable. And now, I got his memoir to delve into. Now that’ll be another post.



  2. My goodness – look at this delight you came up with while I was busying myself with your Hemingway post!

    What a wonderful experience for you, and what wonderful reflections and advice for us. I especially enjoyed his response re: 3D – “story is number one”.

    And best of all, this: “How does your life influence the way you review a film? It generates every word.”

    It’s wonderful to see some of my convictions about the creative process affirmed by such a terrific – and experienced, and successful – person.
    The lesson for me? What I’m doing is right. I just need to do more of it, and do it better!


    Yes, you’ve been doing right… a few articles published… and blogging’s the start, isn’t it? As for that last question and answer, it’s the best of the night. I always save the best for last. Now, I’m just thinking… maybe I should trademark my ripples ~ ~ ~ ?



  3. The first time I saw a photo of Mr. Ebert post-cancer I was shocked at his appearance; but his words, and your presentation of them, have erased that knee-jerk reaction and given me a new respect for the content of his character. He is an inspiration.

    How many copies of “The Sound of Music” do you suppose he has received by now? 😉


    The very first photo after his cancer is from Esquire magazine, you can see it in a lengthy interview entitled Ebert: The Essential Man. You might be interested to click and read. But now we have his memoir, so much more to learn about his life and character.

    The Sound of Music? Yeah… I can’t believe it too. But then again, I know of people who majored in literature and came out not having read Jane Austen. 😉



  4. I’d read a few articles about Mr. Ebert and his cancer. Really amazing things he continues to do, including writing a cookbook! That’s very neat that you got to see him in person.


    A cookbook… wow, he sure is versatile. I follow his tweets, and I’m amazed what a wide area of topics he cares about.



  5. I’d never heard of him before, but it’s very interesting that he’s pro-blogger. What a rarity! I couldn’t agree more with him about CGI and 3-D, too.


    lol… is this only a North American sighting? Come to think of it, I can’t name any film critic from Europe either. I follow Guardian’s movie reviews but can’t think of any film critic individually.
    About 3D… Just wondering… is it getting the same lukewarm reception in England?



  6. I have always respected Ebert, both his opinions on film and the way he’s dealt with this very hard blow.

    I read a while back that he was having a prosthetic made. He was also experimenting with digitization of his voice. Maybe he decided to not go through with them.


    Guess I’ll have to read the book to find out more about that. The same with his face too, I know he’d rather retained his own than have a transplant or graft of some sort.

    P.S. I just listened to an interview of Roger Ebert on CBC radio. He used a text-to-voice software to speak. Here’s the link.


  7. Thank you for sharing the Q & A, it’s absolutely wonderful that you were able to write them down. I am a big fan of Roger Ebert, you’ve just made my day!
    Hat’s off to a remarkable film critic. Tell us more about his book in your next post, will you?

    Molly Mavis,

    Yes, that’s quite an experience. Not only me, I saw many flushed and excited faces there. And the memoir… for sure a post will be coming, just a matter of time. 😉



  8. The fact that Ebert is still able to see all those movies and write so engagingly is a testament to the human spirit in light of his battle with cancer. It also puts a new spin on his reaction to Malick THE TREE OF LIFE – I had no idea Ebert was in this condition (I knew he had been sick…but) so I now see his praise of the film and his description of it as a prayer in a whole new light.

    I travel to Toronto frequently for work – I wish I had been able to have been there for the festival! Looks like you had a great time. Maybe next year I’ll plan ahead for a trip.


    1. David,

      Yes, it makes his answer to that last question most poignant… “It generates every word.” Funny you mention The Tree of Life and Roger’s review, because I just came upon this video clip on Youtube around the time you left your comment here, what a coincident. I find it explains Malick’s film exceptionally well from Fr. Robert Barron. Here’s the link.

      The TIFF is the largest film festival in the world in terms of number of films and countries represented. It’s really worth it to plan your trip around that time, the 2nd and 3rd weeks of Sept. But be sure you buy your ticket package well ahead of time online.



      1. Thanks for the link, Arti. As an ex-Catholic I can appreciate where Fr. Barron is coming from. Though I think the film speaks to things more universal and meaningful than religion, it still surprises me a bit why the religious (and church groups) didn’t rally around TTOL more. Maybe it’s because Malick encourages wonder, questions and doubts rather than espousing blind faith – though a deep faith is present throughout the film and especially in the closing sequences.


        You’ve asked an intriguing question why the religious community didn’t rally around TTOL. I’ve some speculations but that might just be another post. Also, speaking as one from a Christian background, all the issues Malick deals with in the film can be viewed from the lens of faith (‘religion’)… yes, including doubts, good and evil, the problem of pain (why bad things happen to good people), the Creation, meaning of life, family, love & hate, death and after. It’s the whole encompassing worldview. Ok… my speculation: it’s not ‘obvious’ enough for the religious groups, and too ‘religious’ for the non-religious ones. 😉



  9. Oh Arti, what a marvelous evening! I’m not a film buff, but I have always appreciated Ebert’s work. He’s always seemed like a smart, fair-minded, even kind person and now you’ve provided the proof!


    I just finished listening to an interview of Roger Ebert on CBC Radio. Inspiring. Have added a link at the end of my post so you can hear him ‘speak’.



  10. How lucky you are to have had that opportunity. I’ve followed Roger Ebert on twitter & facebook for several months now. Always interesting, with links to his blog & reviews. His new book is on my list!

    Ebert did a TED talk “Remaking My Voice” which was astounding, heartbreaking, and very life-affirming. Go here: to read the intro, and follow links to his talk.


    Thanks for the link. I’ll definitely check it out. And as I’ve mentioned to Ti above, I’ve added at the end of my post a link to Roger’s interview on CBC Radio, broadcast just today. Maybe you’d like to have a listen.



  11. I love this man. Loved him when he did the original Siskel and Ebert, loved him even more when he became ill and then simply triumphed. I’m just the slightest bit envious of your opportunity to meet him and I bet his book will be terrific. Sure do love the graphics on the front. I always respected him because he was never mean to make a point. He’d give a thumbs down, but it was a reasoned, thoughtful evaluation. Three cheers — for him, for you, for Chaz.


    Cheers to Roger and Chaz. I’m just the lucky one. It was one of those stumble-upon episodes that would ultimately leave an indelible mark on your psyche. Mind you, it’s not that I agree everything Roger Ebert has to say about films or other issues, it’s the man’s way of approaching life and adversities that I greatly admire. In today’s broadcast on CBC Radio, two quotes of what Roger said I’ve noted: “Accept what you can’t change.” And the other one I’ve tweeted: “Movies can’t change the world, but movies can change individual lives.”



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