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In Memoriam: Roger Ebert

April 7, 2013

On November 23, 1975, WTTW, a Chicago-based PBS affiliate, aired a program entitled Opening Soon at a Theater Near You. The format of the show was of two newspaper film critics who would debate recent theatrical releases and show clips of those releases. This wasn’t the first time, of course, film critics in general (and newspaper or magazine critics in particular) had appeared on television; Judith Crist, Rex Reed, and John Simon, to name but a few, had either appeared as regular critics on news magazine shows, and/or helped make their name through talk show appearances. There were two aspects, however, that distinguished this program. One was while Crist and her ilk were usually only sparring with either a talk show host or a news anchor or co-anchor whose background wasn’t in film, this was a show where two film critics, without any sort of moderator, were free to debate each other about the merits of a film (or lack thereof). As one of the critics on the show pointed out at the beginning, the goal of the show basically was of a news magazine devoted to talking about movies. The second unique aspect of the show was the fact it was set in Chicago; while Chicago in both geographic and population size is comparable to both Los Angeles and New York, it was not at the time considered anywhere near the film-centered city that Los Angeles and New York were, so this would bring a fresh new perspective to films. Of course, it’s hard to imagine anyone at the time would imagine the show, later renamed Sneak Previews, would become the highest rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public broadcasting. Nor, it’s safe to say, would anyone imagine both critics on the show would, thanks to this show and several other shows they appeared on afterwards, become household names and create a trademark reviewing style, or that the two once often bitter rivals would become close friends (though still rivals). As with James Agee, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael before them, Gene Siskel (who died in 1999 at the age of 53) and Roger Ebert, who died on Thursday at the age of 70, changed the way we looked at movies.

Though Ebert gained his public fame from television, he started out in newspapers, and it always seemed at heart he was a writer. It was a path he took up early in his childhood in Urbana, Illinois, where he was born in 1942. As a child, he mimeographed a newspaper about the neighborhood he lived in, and also published a newspaper devoted to stamp collecting while in elementary school. It was in high school that he sharpened his interest in journalism, covering high school sports for the local paper (the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette), and getting paid for it. Somehow, he also found the time to co-edit the school newspaper, as well as join the swim team, act in plays, found the Science Fiction Club, co-host the school radio program, and get elected as senior class president, all activities that would make Max Fischer green with envy (strangely enough, while Ebert liked the character of Max Fischer, he gave a mixed review to Rushmore). While in college at the University of Illinois, Ebert wrote for that school’s paper and later became an editor his senior year. He also published a weekly journal about politics starting his freshman year, and still found time to continue writing for the News Gazette, as well as freelance for the Chicago Daily News. He had hoped to get a job there to pay for his graduate education at the University of Chicago, where he’d get his doctorate in English. However, Herman Kogan, who had been his editor at the Daily News, was now at the Chicago Sun-Times, and he hired Ebert to write for them part time in 1966. Then in April of the following year, Eleanor Keane, the film critic, retired, and Bob Zonka, the features editor, asked Ebert to take her place. Ebert had been an avid film fan growing up thanks in part to reading the parodies of movies in Mad Magazine, and had written film reviews on occasion in college, including a rave review of Fellin’s La Dolce Vita. However, his original ambition was to be a columnist like Mike Royko (who was already beginning his legendary career at the Daily News), so when Kogan offered Ebert the job as film critic, Ebert might have hesitated, especially since the job at the time was little more than recounting the film’s plot. However, Ebert unhesitantly took the job, and the rest was history.

1967 was shaping up to be a watershed year in American film, thanks to movies such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, both of which Ebert championed (though for the latter, he curiously dismissed the Simon & Garfunkel songs that made up the film’s soundtrack). It was also a time when both Kael and Sarris, among others, were taking film criticism to new heights. It was Kael whom Ebert initially gravitated towards; he met her at the New York Film Festival that year, and sent her some his columns, which she liked. He also found time to edit a book about the history of the University of Illinois. Along with his film reviews, Ebert also found time to write profiles of actors such as Lee Marvin and John Wayne. Also, starting in the 1970’s, Ebert served as a guest lecturer on movies at the University of Chicago. Finally, following in the footsteps of such critics as Agee, Frank Nugent, and Robert E. Sherwood, Ebert also wrote a few screenplays for cult sexploitation director Russ Meyer, the most notorious of which was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Originally intended as a sequel to the widely panned 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, it instead, thanks partly to legal reasons, became a spoof of the film instead. Though Ebert was sometimes sheepish about the film, he ultimately was proud of the film, and being a fan of Meyer, continued an association with him that included a screenplay for a Sex Pistols film in the late 70’s. Ebert might have continued an occasional career in Hollywood had James Hoge, Ebert’s then-editor at the Sun-Times, not insisted that Ebert choose between writing about Hollywood and writing for Hollywood. Ebert, of course, chose the former.

Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975 (Stephen Hunter and Wesley Morris became the second and third film critics to do so). It was that same year the idea of pairing him and Siskel for Opening Soon at a Theater Near You came to pass. Both men initially resisted the idea, not out of any animus towards television, but because of the fierce rivalry between the two (Siskel by then had been a film critic at rival paper Chicago Tribune since 1969). Though deep down, the two might have respected each other, the fierce competitiveness between them kept them from acknowledging that in public – at least, at first. Also, it admittedly took a while for them to mesh together on the show. Part of it, of course was visual – Siskel was taller than Ebert, and Ebert, at least in his early appearances, tended to slouch both physically and personality-wise. Plus, while Siskel was too hard-edged at first, Ebert was the opposite, tempering his natural personality. And as Ebert would later write, the fact everything was so tightly scripted at first meant the two would walk over each other. It wasn’t until they were allowed to ad-lib, and were able to bring the off-screen tension between them on-screen, that the show started to take off. What started out as a bi-monthly local show became, in 1978 (when it was re-titled Sneak Previews), a nationally-seen weekly show that proved to be so popular that four years later, it went to syndicated television (initially under the ownership of Tribune Entertainment), where it would stay for the rest of its run. First, it was called At The Movies (which became the closing line of the show; “We’ll see you at the movies”), then, when they signed with Buena Vista television, Siskel & Ebert At The Movies (Bill Harris and Rex Reed took over At The Movies, which went back to public television), and finally, just plain Siskel & Ebert (when the closing line became, “Until then, the balcony is closed”). No matter what the title of the show, however, the format remained basically the same; the two critics would sit in the balcony of a movie theater (or a set made up to look like one), and debate four or five films that had just been released in theaters. There was some early weirdness (for a feature called “Dog of the Week”, there was an actual dog featured), there were occasional specials (more on those below), and as watching movies at home became more prevalent, a “Video Pick of the Week” (later DVD), but otherwise, the show never strayed too far from its basic format.

Of course, that the format itself – film critics doing reviews on television – existed at all rankled some people, mostly famously Richard Corliss (full disclosure; I knew him briefly starting in about 2004, when he was a customer at the video store I worked at, and while we weren’t really friends, we were on friendly terms). In his 1990 essay “All Thumbs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” (his last column at Film Comment, where he had served as editor since 1970) Corliss charged that TV critics had become merely a “consumer service” without any of the film knowledge or insight of critics such as Agee, Kael or Sarris. And while Corliss reserved most of his ire for Jeffrey Lyons (who was the new co-host of Sneak Previews, along with Michael Medved), Ebert and Siskel came under fire as well, as Corliss lamented how TV critics had become “no brains and all thumbs”. While Ebert has admitted the “Thumbs Up!” “Thumbs Down!” format he and Siskel used on the show was somewhat reductive (for starters, proportionally there were more movies that were merely mediocre and didn’t deserve either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down; Ebert wondered at times if a sideways thumb was more appropriate for those movies), he didn’t take kindly to Corliss denigrating his show, and in an answer essay (“All Stars: Or, Is There a Cure for Criticism of Film Criticism?”, also published in Film Comment), while allowing Corliss’ point about TV criticism not being as in-depth as its print counterpart, that he and Siskel were doing every week was much more than just a “consumer service”. On this point, I think Ebert was right on. Even looking back at that awkward first show, you can see both Ebert and Siskel taking a measured look at what became the Best Picture winner of that year, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (they both liked it but at the same time were somewhat disappointed by it), and explaining why in critical terms, not in sound bites. Just as important, even back then, they were noticing a trend that would become particularly unfortunate in the last decade of Siskel’s life; namely the fact a quality family film that didn’t bear the Disney label had no prayer at the box office (the example they used in the first show was Mr. Quilp, a musical version of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop). In what amounted to special episodes, Siskel and Ebert would take on such topics as violence towards women in horror movies (spurred by Ebert’s distaste for the original version of I Spit On Your Grave), colorization of black-and-white movies (back when it looked like Ted Turner was going to make that a thing), and letterboxing films (which they were in favor of). Again, while these were topics that might have been given more depth in print, Siskel and Ebert took these topics seriously, and discussed them in serious terms, not in easily distilled sound bites.

More important than all of that, however, is unlike many of their subsequent imitators, Siskel and Ebert could never be tagged as merely cheerleaders for studio product. It is true they both praised blockbuster films (both of them put Raiders of the Lost Ark on their respective 10 best lists in 1981) and what were then studio prestige pictures (both of them chose Schindler’s List as their favorite film of 1993). But both of them were also champions of independent films (both of them championed Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre), foreign films (both of them put Ran on their respective 10 best lists in 1985), and documentaries (both of them chose Hoop Dreams as their favorite film of 1994). If Siskel and Ebert got behind a smaller film, they were often able to rescue it from obscurity, as with One False Move, a 1992 crime drama starring (and co-written by) Billy Bob Thornton that seemed destined to go straight to video until both of them championed in on one of their shows and continued to do so in TV and print interviews (Siskel would name it his favorite film of 1992, while Ebert put it second behind Spike Lee’s biopic of Malcolm X). When Hoop Dreams, another film both critics had championed throughout the year (ever since seeing it at that year’s Sundance Film Festival), was shockingly passed over by the Academy Documentary committee, both Siskel and Ebert communicated their outraged, and while they weren’t the only ones, they were among the most visible, and likely helped the eventual reforms of that committee. They also championed minority filmmakers (Ebert, as far as I know, was one of the few white critics to chide anyone who wondered why the African-American characters in Do the Right Thing weren’t using drugs) and women filmmakers (they were both early fans of Jane Campion).

Of course, it must be said while many people did tune into the show to hear about films they normally wouldn’t have heard about (as blockbusters were crowding out the smaller films, though maybe not at the rate as is done today), a number of people tuned in to see Siskel and Ebert disagree, and argue with each other. It should be pointed out, as Siskel would himself bring up in an interview, that the two of them, on balance, agreed more than they disagreed (Siskel estimated they agreed about 70% of the time). But because of their knowledge, their personalities, their competitiveness, and their fractured relationship (at first), their arguments became something to see. Even when they went the round of talk shows (Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey among them), they would spar with each other, and not just about how they looked (Siskel would often needle Ebert about his weight, while Ebert would go after Siskel for going bald). Mostly, when they disagreed, it was because Siskel didn’t like a film Ebert did, often a mainstream film Siskel felt Ebert was too easy on. However, I think their more interesting arguments came about when it was Ebert who didn’t like a film Siskel championed. Partly, it’s because it didn’t happen that often, and partly it’s because there seemed to be no set rule about when it did happen, but mostly, it’s because of the tenor of the argument. When Siskel didn’t like a film, he would often try to bait Ebert to get upset while defending it, which often diminished the experience, but Ebert seemed to put his full intellectual force behind his distaste for a film. Therefore, even though I normally agreed with Siskel in these arguments (I thought Ebert completely missed the point of Blue Velvet, I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka!, and Cobb, as well as, to a lesser extent, The Doors; however, I did agree with Ebert about Full Metal Jacket), I liked watching them more than the other way around.

Of course, part of what made those arguments so compelling to watch was not just the clash of personalities, but the experience and knowledge behind them, thanks to their work as newspaper critics. Indeed, while Siskel had a family to attend to, as well as other critics sharing duties at the Tribune, Ebert was the main critic of the Sun-Times, and he seemed indefatigable. He turned out several reviews a week, and was a constant presence at what became the main film festivals of the 90’s – Sundance and Toronto – as well as Cannes. And when Siskel passed away in February of 1999, Ebert soldiered on with the TV show, first with a series of guest hosts, and then Richard Roeper as a permanent co-host (though he and Roeper would often disagree as well, their arguments didn’t carry the same force as Siskel and Ebert, because Roeper was more like the type of TV critic Corliss went after in his essay), until Ebert’s thyroid and jaw cancer forced him to drop out of the show for good in 2006. However, even though he could no longer talk, he still could write, and in addition to writing movie reviews (as well as writing his Great Movies series, where he talked about the classics of the past and present) and putting out book collections (of his yearly reviews, his Great Movies series, and two books about his least favorite movies), Ebert wrote about a host other topics, including his personal life, politics and religion, with the same passion, knowledge, and measured arguments. In the last years of his life, he also would feature on his webpage contributions from critics from around the world, and it’s likely his exposure to this that led him to be one of the few (if not only) critics of his generation to not bemoan the state of film criticism that has become a rallying cry in certain quarters the last few years.

Unlike the critics who came before him, Ebert never claimed to be ruled by any particular critical aesthetic. He seemed to take each movie on its own terms, and while his working in Hollywood gave him inside knowledge of how films were made, he never used that as a bragging point. Like Kael, he often talked about his life when reviewing movies (though, as far as I know, he never discussed his alcoholism in his reviews, those who read his reviews on movies that dealt with alcoholism and drug addiction might have been able to read between the lines because of the detail he brought to those reviews). More than Kael, however, Ebert’s model was his favorite critic, Stanley Kauffmann (of The New Republic), who brought a calm, objective tone to each of his reviews. Unlike Kauffmann, one of the main points of contention against Ebert (aside from the whole TV thing) was he did seem to be more forgiving of blockbuster movies as long as he was entertained by them. More seriously (at least as far as I’m concerned) is how harsh he could be on movies whose reach exceeded their grasp, as if failure of ambition was more of a crime than having no ambition at all (Ebert wasn’t the only critic, for example, who panned Blindness, but that flawed, powerful film deserved more than what Ebert and others did to it). Speaking of being harsh, like most famous critics, Ebert was known as much for the films he panned as those he praised, especially if he hated the film, most memorably in the cases of North (where his phrase, “I hated, hated, hated this movie”) and his initial viewing of The Brown Bunny (at the time, he called it “the worst film in the history of Cannes”). Still, with rare exceptions, he was never overly nasty (even Rob Schneider, whose movies Ebert generally detested, still thought well enough of Ebert to send him flowers in the last days of his life, a fact Ebert showed appreciation for). And again, as with his TV show, Ebert looked for the smaller films he could champion, and talked with authority about the films in his “Great Movies” series.

During his talk show appearances in the 90’s, Ebert was often asked about how he felt when interviewing actors or directors, and he replied that while he was okay dealing with those he felt were his contemporaries, even he got tongue-tied and excited when interviewing actors who were stars when he was a kid (like John Wayne). While more than ever, critics seemed to automatically get targeted as “elitist”, Ebert somehow managed to evade that charge, being approachable, in person, in print, or online (he was a fan of Twitter late in his life). Many people over the last few days have written about their personal encounters, or associations, with Ebert, and to a person, they have always described him as warm and gracious. My one encounter with Ebert was nowhere near as memorable, or as personal, as those, but it still reveals something of him, I think. Back in the mid-90’s or a little later, when I first entertained the idea of making a living as a film critic, I wrote to Ebert, among others, asking for advice on how to pursue a career in that field. Ebert, of course, received so many letters (and later, e-mails) in that regard, so he sent back a form letter in response. Unlike any other form letter I received, it was detailed and contained somewhat of a personal touch. Whether in a film review, or in a form letter, he was someone who was intelligent enough to give discourse on most subjects, yet still one of us. After Ernst Lubitsch died, Billy Wilder and William Wyler were leaving his funeral, and Wilder mentioned how said it was there was no more Lubitsch, to which Wyler replied, “Worse; no Lubitsch pictures.” Ebert was a person who, even when disease overtook him, seemed to live life to the fullest, and it’s always said to see someone like that die, especially when it was too soon. However, it’s just as bad that we’re no longer going to be able to turn to his page on Fridays and see a new review from him. As a film lover, enthusiast, and especially as critic, he will be missed.

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2 Comments
  1. This was well-written. Thanks for this comprehensive overview of Roger Ebert’s life.

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