Roger Ebert Talks Movingly About Losing and Re-Finding His Voice (TED 2011)

Film critic Roger Ebert, like Pauline Kael before him, leaves behind a great torrent of words. Those of us accustomed to seeking out his opinion can comfort ourselves on the Internet, where his thoughts on the great (and not-so-great) films of the last four decades live in perpetuity.

After a ruptured carotid artery robbed him of the power of speech, words assumed an even greater importance for Ebert. Even though he felt lucky to be alive in an age when most home computers come equipped with a text-to-speech option, he mourned the loss of inflection, timing, and spontaneity. CereProc, a Scottish firm specializing in personalized computer voices, created a custom version he breezily referred to as Roger Junior or Roger 2.0, a Frankenstein’s monster assembled from hours of television appearances. A noble, but flawed attempt. Despite his Midwestern attraction to Apple’s computerized British accent, Ebert returned to its American male voice, “Alex”, as the most expressive option.

In 2011, the speechless Ebert gave a TED Talk on the subject. “Alex” was given his moment to shine, but there’s no way the technological miracle can compete with the human spectacle onstage.

Rather than rely on the relatively autonomous voice substitute, Ebert arranged for his wife, Chaz Hammelsmith, and friends Dean Ornish and John Hunter, to read his words from prepared scripts.

Forget W.C. Fields’ caveat about performing with children and dogs. Ebert stole his own show, shamelessly upstaging his loved ones with jolly pantomimed thumbs ups and other antics. When he’s on camera, you can’t take your eyes off him…as he clearly knew. A 2010 Esquire article by Chicago-based theater critic, Chris Jones, described how the removal of Ebert’s lower jaw gave him the aspect of a permanent smile. The disfigurement was shocking, but especially so on one whose face was so familiar. It led to frequent misassumptions that he had been mentally incapacitated as well. Hammelsmith’s tears when she gets to this part of her husband’s eloquent TED Talk speak volumes as well. His willingness to place himself front and center, where people who might think it impolite to stare could not help but see and hear him as a whole person, was a revolutionary act.

“Without intelligence and memory, there is no history.”  – Roger Ebert, 1942 – 2013

– Ayun Halliday is a writer in the Big Apple.

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