"Roger Ebert" by Rob Feder

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Posted by Bart Goldberg on January 21, 2011 at 06:55:48:

Ebert’s encore: Roger steps back in the spotlight — and I am in awe

January 21st, 2011 @ 12:00 am

He’ll be wearing a prosthetic chin and neck, speaking in the voice of German director Werner Herzog, and sitting at his desk rather than on the balcony set. But none of that really matters.

What does matter is that Roger Ebert, 68, returns to television tonight — 36 years after he first stepped in front of a camera with Gene Siskel at WTTW-Channel 11 and five years after cancer took away his jaw and his voice. I can’t think of a more dramatic encore by any star in my lifetime.

In a season rocked by the departures of Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and Regis Philbin after decades on their eponymous programs, Roger tops them all by making a comeback few could have imagined.

From the same Window to the World studios on North St. Louis Avenue that launched Opening Soon at a Theatre Near You on Sept. 4, 1975 (and transformed two rival newspapermen into the world’s most famous and powerful critics), Roger will re-introduce serious, weekly film reviews to public television viewers. Starting this weekend, Ebert Presents at the Movies will air at 8:30pm Fridays on Channel 11 and at various times on PBS stations nationwide.

In watching the show’s opening, I was struck by two things immediately: the images of a robust Roger through the years with his former partners, Gene and Richard Roeper; and the theme music from The Third Man, of which Roger wrote: “Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.”

Somehow I sense there’s more to his choice of that melody than ear candy. By evoking a film about loss, disillusionment and decay through the use of a score Roger once described as “jaunty but without joy,” perhaps he’s also conveying a melancholy message: Just as Orson Welles’ Harry Lime lurks in the shadows as a distorted figure through most of The Third Man, Roger appears mainly on the sidelines and in photographs of the show that bears his name.

It’s also curious that neither the names nor the faces of the show’s actual hosts, Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, appear anywhere in the opening credits. I’m not sure what to make of that, except to assume that Roger and his executive producer/wife, Chaz, know that the real draw for us is the great man himself.

As much as we love Roger, whether Ebert Presents at the Movies succeeds will depend more on whether viewers warm to Lemire and Vishnevetsky, and care what they (or anyone else not named Ebert) have to say about the movies. And because the show exists in the netherworld of public television, its success also will depend on whether sufficient underwriting can be sustained. But that cold, hard analysis can wait for another day.

For now, when I think of all Roger has accomplished, contributed and overcome in the 36 years between that first strained appearance with Gene and his triumphant, courageous comeback tonight, I am simply in awe.


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