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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Roger Ebert Watches Muhammad Ali

On January 17, 2010, it was Muhammad Ali's 68th birthday. In a brief post celebrating the man and his day, Roger wrote: "It has been one of the great honors of my life to be a friend of Muhammad Ali."

Roger's personal relationship with The Greatest led to some candid, fascinating reports from within the boxer's cultural phenomenon. The two first met when Roger accompanied him to Pakistan on a good-will tour; he later followed Ali on excursions like book tours or personal appearances. Of their friendship, the critic once wrote that he stayed in Ali’s Hyde Park house at least 50 times—“Ali was not the kind of man to let you stay in a hotel.” 

On September 15, 1978, Roger wrote a profile on Ali called “Muhammad Ali: The Actor,” which observed the next feat of Ali, as he started to get deeper into show business. In Ali’s own words, he was merely continuing the acting he had been doing in the ring: “How do I know I can be an actor? Because I’ve been acting all my life! Everything I do is an act, and the amazing thing is that people the whole world over have bought it. I’m acting now.”

The occasion for the article was a movie titled “Freedom Road,” which went to TV in 1979, and left 1977’s “The Greatest” as his sole feature film acting role (playing himself). Still, this profile offers a great slice of Ali's personal showmanship, going toe-to-toe with renowned actors:

“Get me some dye for my old gray hair, put some powder on my face, give me my lines to learn … and I will be the greatest actor in the world! The others will fall! They will all fall! Robert Redford will fall! Steve McQueen will fall! Clint Eastwood will fall! They will all fall, because I am the most beautiful man in history!”

A year later on July 31, 1979, Roger watched Ali observe an image of himself when they attended a screening of “Rocky II” together. In this fascinating piece, Roger shared first-person accounts of Ali's fame, like when Ali rode in the front seat with his limo driver to be recognized by everyone, creating what Roger called “a hero’s parade.” “Ali says he is the most famous person in the world,” Roger wrote. “He may be right.” 

During the screening of “Rocky II,” Ali identified not with the title character, but Carl Weathers' fighter Apollo Creed. “That’s me, alright,” he said. "Apollo sounds like me. Insulting the opponent in the press, to get him psyched out. That's me exactly." Able to discern real fighters from actors like Stallone, he acted as film critic for various details from the film (like weightlifting training, which he disagreed with). The finale to the piece is staggering when Ali offers his heaviest criticism, responding to the end of “Rocky II" from his own success as a black boxer and The Greatest. 

On February 27, 1997, Roger reviewed Ali’s own image in the cinema, the one within Leon Gast’s documentary “When We Were Kings.” A collection of a “cultural and political happening” from October 30, 1974, Roger called it a “time capsule of a movie" in his three-star review, noting that it “captures Ali’s public persona and private resolve.” The review also features a great Ali-ism, personally shared with Roger: “When I fly on an airplane, I look out of the window and I think, I am the only person that *everyone* down there knows about.” Roger added, “It is not bragging if you are only telling the truth.” 

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