Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Roger Ebert's Chin

Photo: Ethan Hill/Esquire
A year ago, Pulitzer prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert announced his Oscar picks on The Oprah Winfrey Show and made headlines. But not for his picks. His face ravaged and his voice silenced by a long battle that had begun with thyroid cancer in 2006, Ebert was now "speaking" through the miracle of technology. A then-new text-to-speech computer program by the Scottish startup company CereProc synthesizes a more or less authentic-sounding digital voice from existing sound clips of the subject's own voice, which then "reads" aloud the words that fly from Ebert's keyboard....

During this year's Academy Awards presentation he was merely tweeting (@EBERTCHICAGO)—loud and clear, eloquent as ever, and totally tech-savvy.

By any measure, the iconic epicure Roger Ebert has raised himself from a premature death, fighting his way back to ebullient life many times throughout his medical ordeal, with the unfailing support of his wife Chaz, and buoyed by his work—his writing—his joy in the rewards of paying keen attention. And now he's got his own show on PBS—Ebert Presents At The Movies (what else?)—in which Ebert is sometimes actually seen on camera as he works in his office.

Let's pause a moment to take this in. A famously loquacious, irrepressible connoisseur of everything, now facially disfigured, unable to speak, or eat, or close his mouth, is now hosting an eagerly anticipated television show—which, ps, is not about his own limitations. Last month Time magazine called it "one long overdue comeback".

Prosthetist Rotter
A lot can change in a year.

A year ago, in answer to Oprah's ginger inquiry about possible procedures to further improve to his appearance, Ebert pronounced himself sick of surgery and willing to live without a natural voice, and learn to put up with his now jawless face. "Nobody looks perfect," he said then. “We have to find peace with the way we look and get on with life...."

Still, this year, he will not only "speak" with ever-improving inflection and nuance, but also, when he goes on air, Ebert will show off a new prosthetic chin, developed for him by Dr. David J. Reisberg, professor of craniofacial medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago, prosthetist David Rotter and anaplastologist Julie Jordan Brown. Ebert says it's not for himself, this prosthetic cosmesis, but to put his viewers at ease, and free up their attention to hear what he has to say.
Ebert on the air

The face we put forward does matter, it would seem, whether or not we've made our own peace with it. Because communication is a two-way street.

Read "Roger Ebert: The Essential Man" by Chris Jones in Esquire

Catch a Glimpse of Roger Ebert's Life Today