TALES FROM TINSELTOWN: Ebert discovers that it isn't the size of your thumb that counts

So I get this call from a publicist pal who could hardly stop giggling.

So I get this call from a publicist pal who could hardly stop giggling.

"Did you hear about Roger?" she asked. She didn't use the name Roger, though. She employed a less favorable term.

(She's not the only publicist I know who does so.) "He threw a tantrum when they wouldn't let him into a screening."

A little clarification: Roger is Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times movie critic with the most famous thumb since Ronald Reagan. The direction his illustrious digit points can have a significant impact on a movie's box-office fortunes. "Two thumbs up!" (his flick-pick sidekick, Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper, you see, also possesses a thumb) has become the most ubiquitous ad blurb since "New and improved!"

The screening took place at the Toronto International Film Festival, without question the industry's most important, having usurped Cannes a few years back when the French-fest became better known for topless women on yachts and an obsequious paparazzi. The shutterbugs at Cannes have been known to obediently wait three hours for a photo op with the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, for goodness sake. (I was going to use the name of another celebrity, but since he's dead now, it seemed a bit tacky.)

Back to Roger: He's known to be a bit of a curmudgeon. A tad on the grumpy side. Hey, if the guy can't even fake being pleasant for 18 minutes each week on his television show, how much of a Mr. Sunshine can he be? He's irritated more than one publicist along the way, the power of his thumb apparently having gone to his head, what with his annual on-camera schmoozing with Hollywood stars on Oscar night.

I had my first Roger encounter in 1991 at a screening he attended on the Paramount lot. My boss instructed, "Sit behind him so you can kick the chair if he dozes off." He did, and I dutifully kicked. Can't say I blame Ebert, though, as the film he was watching (or not), The Butcher's Wife, is capable of putting to sleep a ferret on coke. (Stole that line from Dennis Miller.)

The Toronto festival, which I've attended a few times, operates strictly on a first-come, first-serve basis. If the room's full, you don't get to bump John Q. from a seat - even if you're Roger Ebert. His thumbness apparently got bent out of shape by this egalitarian policy, and he complained "vigorously," according to my friend. Several onlookers were amused, she reports, having heard this sort of thing from him before. "Don't you recognize this thumb?" he might very well have asked. "Do you realize what it is capable of? It can shatter box-office dreams, break the backs of studio execs, and bend the will of movie-goers."

Perhaps he might also have considered using it to sit on, as chairs were in such short supply.

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