My Ninth Annual Film Festival opens Wednesday night at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and Chaz and I will be in attendance. This year I won’t be speaking, however, as I await another surgery. I have received a lot of advice that I should not attend the Festival. I’m told that paparazzi will take unflattering pictures, people will be unkind, etc. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. As a journalist I can take it as well as dish it out.He sounds bound and determined not to let his illness keep him from taking his usual spot and enjoying the festival. Never let it be said that he doesn't love the movies. One year during the festival he was injured and had to get his arm in a sling, but he was there as cheerful as ever before each of the films. This year sounds like an even greater challenge that he's ready to meet.
So let’s talk turkey. What will I look like? To paraphrase a line from “Raging Bull,” I ain’t a pretty boy no more. (Not that I ever was. The original appeal of Siskel & Ebert was that we didn’t look like we belonged on TV.)
What happened was, cancer of the salivary gland spread to my right lower jaw. A segment of the mandible was removed. Two operations to replace the missing segment were unsuccessful, both leading to unanticipated bleeding.
A tracheostomy was necessary so, for the time being, I cannot speak. I make do with written notes and a lot of hand waving and eye-rolling. The doctors now plan an approach that does not involve the risk of unplanned bleeding. If all goes well, my speech will be restored.
So when I turn up in Urbana, I will be wearing a gauze bandage around my neck, and my mouth will be seen to droop. So it goes.
I was told photos of me in this condition would attract the gossip papers. So what? I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks. I still have my brain and my typing fingers.
Although months in bed after the bleeding episodes caused a lack of strength and co-ordination, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago restored my ability to walk on my own, climb stairs, etc. I no longer use a walker much and the wheelchair is more for occasional speed and comfort than need. Just today we went for a long stroll in Lincoln Park.
We spend too much time hiding illness. There is an assumption that I must always look the same. I hope to look better than I look now. But I’m not going to miss my Festival.
Why do I want to go? Above all, to see the movies. Then to meet old friends and great directors and personally thank all the loyal audience members who continue to support the Festival. At least, not being able to speak, I am spared the need to explain why every film is “overlooked,” or why I wrote “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”
Being sick is no fun. But you can have fun while you’re sick. I wouldn’t miss the Festival for anything!
P.S. To Gossip Rags: I have some back pain, and to make it easier for me to sit through screenings, the Festival has installed my very own La-Z-Boy chair. Photos of me in the chair should be captioned, “La-Z-Critic.”
Ebertfest attendees are always so happy to be at the festival. Imagine what it must mean for the man it is named after.