Roger Ebert, who died April 4, at the age of 70, was the most famous and visible American film critic, and the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He became practically a household name. He finally succumbed after a decade-long battle with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, which ultimately rendered him mute and unable to eat or drink, but never stopped him from continuing to follow as prolific a reviewing schedule as anybody in the game. The cancer forced him to withdraw from “Ebert and Roeper at the Movies,” the weekly TV reviewing show, seven years ago. He wrote for the Chicago Sun Times from the 1970s’ and in 1975 he had joined with Gene Siskel, his arch rival from the Chicago Tribune for their first TV show, “Sneak Previews,” which later went commercial and wide and brought discussing the week’s film releases and giving them “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” an American home pastime. Siskel, a film critic arguably more critical and passionate than the amiable Ebert, died in his early fifties in 1990; a film center was established in Siskel’s honour. It seems Chicago is a good movie town. After all it was also the town of Jonathan Rosenbaum, the erudite and stern film critic and author most revered by film buffs, who wrote till four years ago for a small weekly called The Chicago Reader.
Cinephiles might prefer Rosenbaum. And Ebert wasn’t a polemicist like Pauline Kael, (1919-2001), perhaps the other most famous American film critic of the last half century, who wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991 and was more admired, or fought, by intellectuals and far more provocative and stimulating than Ebert. Kael was the most exciting and widely debated movie reviewer of my lifetime. Her distinctive style created clones, called “Paulettes”: one can still detect her intonations in reviews by well-known critics with “Paulette” roots. You’d go to Pauline Kael’s latest review with excitement. You could almost say her reviews were news. They were outrageous and fun.
But Ebert stands out for different reasons. He was the writer most influential in convincing America to take film seriously as a part of culture. Beyond that everyone knew him and liked him, because he was so inclusive, fair, and clear in his review-writing. He was a populariser of film criticism. (Like Kael, he wrote wisely about many of the great film classics.) His rotund figure in evening dress became a fixture of network TV coverage of the Oscars. He showed that sometimes the phrase genial critic is not an oxymoron. And he was prolific. He published some 20 books, some of them collections of reviews. Through the TV show and his reviews, the latter eventually carried by over 200 newspapers, Ebert may be seen as having continued and spread a national film debate Kael started. Ebert’s influence was pervasive. You might think you weren’t interested in him, but then you’d pick up one of his books. The TV show came around dinnertime on Sunday evenings. I used to watch it with friends.
Roger Ebert now also stands out and will be remembered as a man of great courage, warmth, and heart. Imagine being unable to speak or take solid food and still keeping up an intense writing schedule (and being an indefatigable Twitter person), making public appearances (using a computerised voice box), and continuing to run your own film festival. Though Ebert could seem too easy-going in his reviews, he and Siskel had heated debates and traded sharp and witty barbs in the early days of their show. But there is a lot to be said for positivity in a sphere where there is so much snark and superficial cleverness. Ebert’s writing was more wise than clever. He had something to say about films that others dismissed — and about everything.
Sometimes in his books or reviews Ebert made factual mistakes. It was easy for glib or smart young film buffs to dismiss him. But I came to appreciate him. Literally moments before I got an email informing me of his death, I had just then been reading his review of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, drawn to it because I had learned that he was one of those, in the minority this time perhaps, who (like me) were left unimpressed by the film. He was a point of reference. He will doubtless remain one.
At the outset of Siskel and Ebert’s original TV movie review show they’d be seen sneaking into the balcony of a cinema with snacks. At the end the announcer would say, “Till next week, the balcony is closed.” There’s an empty chair in the balcony now. It will be kept vacant in Roger’s memory.