An Unimportant Story

Long before I landed a job at the newspaper that was his home base, I just loved Roger Ebert. Toiling away on a series of night news desks, I sneaked peeks at his film reviews on the entertainment wire when I was supposed to be writing headlines for zoning-board stories. I delighted in his genial snark-and-snipe routine as half of the Siskel and Ebert TV team.

He was the best. So I devoutly hoped I’d never get to work with him when I arrived at the Sun-Times as a lowly copy editor.

By that point in my professional life, I knew that beloved, award-winning newsroom personalities weren’t always so lovable to be around. “If you can read this, you’ve come too close,” Dorothy Parker supposedly suggested for her tombstone. I thought of this quote often as I moved from newspaper to newspaper, heard the stories, and landed on the receiving end once or twice.

The hissy fits over unavoidable deadline or space constraints. The marquee-value columnists who used their high-profile pulpits to poke fun at lesser colleagues. (And, ugh: “How’d you like to sleep with a Pulitzer winner, honey?”  a colleague was asked a few weeks into her first job. She declined, probably more politely than was deserved.)

At the Sun-Times I worked on a variety of feature-section stories. Then I became an assistant editor on the Friday entertainment section, which ran movie reviews. But I was still safe from illusion-busting in the Ebert department, because his reviews were very much my boss’ territory. Ebert worked off-site and was actually in the office only occasionally. By that time he was as much of a media brand presence as he was a critic, and he was still, of course, a fine critic. His reviews came in by remote and were edited by my boss over the telephone, in conversations to which I listened with half an ear. They seemed cordial; fun, even. Still: better my boss than me. Ebert was a newsroom legend at the Sun-Times and his niceness was equally legendary, but I distrusted the stories. It was easy to wax eloquent about niceness if you only saw the guy every few weeks, I reasoned.

But a day came when my boss could not be there to handle the Friday-section movie reviews – he had the plague? Something dire, I’m sure.

“Just give him the lengths,” said the boss over the phone, from his bed of pain, or whatever it was. “Relax. It’ll be fine.”

It would not be fine, I knew as I looked over the space allotted for that week. There was not a lot of wiggle room. Of course Roger Ebert’s reviews were top priority, but a lot of movies were opening that particular Friday, and we were skimpy on jump space – the pages where you put the “Continued from …” parts of the reviews. The Friday section was never really the place where the movie reviews could run on and on, and this week was tight.

It was time to call Mr. Ebert and tell him this. Surely he would not be happy. Stars never liked being told their space was short. I was about to learn the real deal about the guy who had made me and my mom laugh hysterically over “At the Movies.”

I telephoned. I explained who I was and called him Mr. Ebert, and he told me it wasn’t necessary to call him Mr. Ebert. I recall ignoring this. Nervously I hemmed and hawed over the skimpy space, trying to be frank, yet inoffensive.

He cut efficiently into my waffling. “Liz. Listen.”

Here it comes.

“Just tell me the lengths,” Mr. Ebert said, very kindly, very patiently. “I will write to the lengths.”

“But …”

“Just tell me. I’ll write to it.”

The reviews came in, comfortably ahead of deadline, fitting the space to the syllable, and as fun to read as ever.

“But he’s always like that,” said a co-worker, witnessing my slack-jawed reaction. “I thought you knew that.”

I had heard so, many times. But I hadn’t really known.

That’s my only Ebert story, and it is not a particularly remarkable one. But I have come to believe that the truth of a person’s spirit is evidenced by how they treat those who are not in a position to do them any particular favors. By that measure, Mr. Ebert’s spirit was right up there. I will miss reading his reviews very, very much. And I am sad the world no longer has him in it.


OT: Jane and Rochester, Fun Couple

I truly do have a nice big list of genealogy posts to work on, but a loss in my extended family — and, more happily, a family wedding next month — have reawakened an urgency to work on, well, genealogy. That’s what happens when you put off writing that family history you’ve been promising everyone.

I admit I’ve been feeling blue and out of sorts. Bizarrely, I have found comfort in viewing every possible filmed version of Jane Eyre that I can. Gloomy moors and bloodcurdling offstage screams seem about right these days.

But Jane, on page or screen, always cheers me up when I’m blue. She’s so plucky and persnickety and earnestly righteous and badass in a restrained, Victorian way. Rochester needs a good swift kick every now and then, and Jane delivers.

And delivers and delivers!

So far I’ve looked at Janes from 1934, 1944, 1970, 1973, 1983 and 2006, not to mention SCTV’s surreal parody, Jane Eyrehead. And I still haven’t gotten to those 1950s teleplays, nor that 1990s Jane Eyre, nor yet Jana Eyrova, the groovy 1970s Czech version. (I recommend The Enthusiast’s Guide to Jane Eyre Adaptations, if you want to follow me down the dark and twisting path of Eyre-mania.)

And just think! In a few short days, a new film version will be unveiled, so that our very own decade will have fresh Eyre. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Stop throwing that stuff!)

The 1944 film with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine (a big favorite of my mom’s) still holds up well. Many adore the 2006 BBC version, but it’s somewhat overwrought for my taste. Jane doesn’t have to bellow to make her points, in my book. For me it’s a tossup between 1973 and 1983. The BBC’s ’83 edition has a slight edge in the person of Timothy Dalton’s Rochester –that’s textbook dark brooding, that is.

However, for sheer wrongheaded goofiness which truly raised my spirits, the prize goes to the 1934 Monogram studios  adaptation. Jane (Virginia Bruce) is blond and sunny. Everyone is sort of blond and sunny, really. And American-accented.

Best dialogue, at 2:46:

[Jane and Rochester in blissful clinch, interrupted by blood-curdling, operatic scream.]

JANE: What was that, Edward? I’ve heard it a number of times — it frightens me!

ROCHESTER: Nothing to be alarmed about.

Oh, Jane, Jane. How many times have we heard that one?