Film critic Roger Ebert passed away today at age 70, following a recurrence of the cancer he had fought so bravely and publicly.
His accomplishments are enormous and a matter of public record (and a memoir, Life Itself): Despite having the most famous right thumb in television history, he was a writer first, a journalist who started at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966 and never left. He became a movie critic at the publication a year later and was rightly revered for his passion, scholarship, prolificacy, and accessibility, all of which made him the first in his field to win a Pulitzer Prize. This was 1975, just as he and his late (and often genuinely bitter) rival at the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel, started a movie-review show called Sneak Previews at a local public station. Their extraordinary chemistry—and gradual improvement as skilled broadcasters—brought the show greater attention, first on PBS and later in national syndication with At The Movies and Siskel & Ebert & The Movies. He also had a period of his life where he tomcatted around with Russ Meyer—and wrote the script for Meyer’s 1970 opus Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls—but his wife, the extraordinary Chaz Ebert, would probably rather we not talk about that.
For the rest of his biography, consult Wikipedia.
Here’s what we know about Ebert the man. He inspired millions to care about movies and think about them more deeply than they might have otherwise. His opinions were not limited to Chicago, though he was and will remain one of its most cherished sons. Through his syndicated reviews, written in a conversational style that only he seemed capable of pulling off, he was unquestionably the most powerful film critic in America for decades—the man to consult every Friday for legions of newspaper subscribers across the country. If anything, the reach of the television show was even more profound: The commitment that he and Siskel made to reviewing smaller films—and championing many of them to levels of exposure and appreciation they would not have had otherwise—helped promote and sustain the idea of film as an artform, despite the occasional grousing of some who thought TV reviews were somehow cheapening film culture and criticism. If you lived in Des Moines or Missoula—or the Toledo suburb where I grew up—there was a likelihood that you wouldn’t have known films like My Dinner With André or Hoop Dreams existed were it not for their advocacy. For many future cinephiles, Ebert was that first gateway into paradise.
Now, please pardon my indulgence as I break obit form and speak personally, but as a film critic operating out of Chicago, I can’t pretend that I didn’t know him or that he didn’t have a profound impact on my life—an impact that he likely didn’t know and that’s likely shared by so many other film critics and cineastes, whether they had the pleasure of meeting him or not. Cinema is a river with many tributaries, and I’m sure I’m not alone among movie-crazy teenagers in the ‘80s in using Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion as the boat downstream. You go through all the four-star reviews. You see Taxi Driver, and then of course you have to see Raging Bull, and then every other Martin Scorsese picture that sits on the video shelf. (And then you get into the movies that influenced Scorsese, which is a lifetime in itself.) You argue with him, you glean insights in the things you watch, you learn an entire new way of thinking, talking, and writing about the movies. And you never stop watching. You never stop debating. You have a companion for life, even now that his is over.
When The A.V. Club brought me to Chicago full time in 1999, my first screening was Eyes Wide Shut at 600 N. Michigan. Ebert was there, as was Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Reader and Michael Wilmington of the Tribune. Holy shit, I had made it, and yet I dare not speak to the man who occupied the back corner seat in the Lake Street Screening Room. He was one of my heroes, and I would not have been there without him, but it’s not something I ever felt comfortable telling him. But here’s the thing about Roger Ebert: He was more than willing to talk, and he treated his fellow critics with sweetness and generosity, as one of us. In the minutes before a screening would start, Ebert would hold court from the back row, regaling everyone with everything from opinions on issues of the day to a fusillade of dirty jokes. Before his voice was silenced, he was one unbelievably great talker and an even better laugher—nearly to the point where, if he loved a comedy, everyone else in Chicago would love a comedy, too, just because his laugh was so damnably infectious.
But it’s what happened after his voice was gone that lingers, especially in a field that keeps contracting year after year after year. After battling nearly to a loss with thyroid cancer, he couldn’t speak and would never be able to speak again. (Though technology brought his voice back to some degree.) His face was permanently slackened due to complications from surgery. He needed professional accompaniment to screenings. And yet the kid stayed in the picture: He kept on writing and writing and writing, turning out reviews at a pace that had always embarrassed the rest of us. He also discovered blogging and embraced it with a fervor few older writers can muster for the new. He wrote about his past. He wrote about politics. He wrote about death. He encouraged writers from across the globe to contribute to his blog—the Far Flung Correspondents—and bring new perspectives to the medium he loved, and fresh hope to a practice in decline. Only two days ago, in a post announcing his “leave of presence,” did he even talk about cutting back. And now he’s gone.
As my friend, the New York Magazine critic Bilge Ebiri, put it then: “As much as [Ebert] has taught us about how to watch movies, he’s taught us even more about how to be human.” Amen, brother.
Goodbye, Roger. We loved you and we’ll miss you.