April 5, 2013

A Final Thumbs Up

Filed under: Movies,Real Life — DB @ 6:00 pm
Tags: ,

On Tuesday, Roger Ebert published a post on his blog announcing that he would be slowing down for a while, reviewing fewer movies and instead focusing on other aspects of his expansive brand — a move prompted by the recurrence of the cancer that had been chipping away at him for years. Ever the optimist who refused to let the disease stop him, Ebert referred to this adjustment as a “leave of presence.”

On Thursday, Roger Ebert passed away.

I’ll try not to regurgitate facts about his life that, in the past 24 hours, have already been offered by admirers and colleagues who can eulogize him more eloquently and effectively than I can. If you haven’t read any of them, you should. Ebert lived a rich and colorful life. This piece from The New York Times does a nice job of covering the highlights, as does this one from The Hollywood Reporter. Fellow critics and journalists like Owen Gleiberman, Todd McCarthy and Jeff Greenfield have paid tribute to his importance and influence. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Harvey Weinstein, Taylor Hackford and President Obama all released statements honoring him, as did Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker whose work was long championed by Ebert and who presented the critic with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005. Other directors like Danny Boyle and Darren Aronofsky offered remembrances as well. Reactions have poured in on Twitter from actors, filmmakers, and other members of the media who were touched by his work.

Like so many, I came to know Ebert through his TV show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, who also died too soon of cancer, in 1999. I mentioned last year, in a post about the beginnings of my life as an obsessive movie fan, how I watched Siskel & Ebert every week just out of pure excitement to see clips from the movies. I wanted them to like the movies I liked (or the ones I was excited to see). Whether they agreed or disagreed, they were great fun to watch, and they were doing the only thing that I had any interest in doing: they were talking about movies. When I heard the news about Ebert’s passing yesterday, I went straight to YouTube and started searching among the wealth of available clips from their show for a few specific reviews from the summer of 1987. I couldn’t find the ones I was looking for, but soon fell down the rabbit hole and watched probably a dozen, including their appraisals of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (complete with the show’s opening credit sequence…wow, the memories!)…*

Blue Velvet, on which Ebert stood out in the critical community as a voice of dissent…

…and Overboard, a nice little comedy that I’ve always enjoyed. Ebert liked it too. Siskel did not.

Here’s their review of A Few Good Men. I remember watching this at the time, and having liked the movie, wanting to disregard Ebert’s main problem with it.

But damn him, I couldn’t put it out of my head. It kept gnawing at me. Still does, when I see the movie. And even though I like it, I know he’s right. Whether or not I could share their opinions, I always found them entertaining and appreciated what they were doing. I looked forward to their Memo to the Academy specials, where they made suggestions to Academy members about films and performances that deserved nominations, as well as their annual If We Picked the Winners episodes, where they opened each other’s envelopes and discussed their thoughts on who should win the Oscars. I remember that Academy special in 1993, when Siskel couldn’t explain his choice of The Crying Game in a certain category without giving away the film’s big secret, so he suggested viewers turn down the volume on their TV sets until he was done and gave a signal to turn it back up. Ebert was upset by that, and their bickering made news. Siskel and Ebert’s public persona seemed to be that they were always bickering, but while they often did disagree — sometimes strongly — and poke fun at each other, their rapport always came through. They frequently appeared together on David Letterman’s shows, and many of those clips are also available on YouTube. This one, from 1990, finds them discussing GoodFellas, the importance of movies to the public, and the NC-17 rating, which was new at the time.

Siskel and Ebert were a major part of my movie-centric childhood. When I was probably around 11 or 12, I randomly wrote a poem in which the two of them did a show about horror movies that people could rent and watch at home. I have no recollection of how this came to pass; I didn’t even like horror movies, and certainly hadn’t seen many at that age. But I wrote it, and sent it to them after tracking down their address through the local Boston channel that syndicated their show. They sent me back a personally autographed copy of the picture below. I also recall seeing some program on TV where Ebert showed off his home movie theater. And I don’t mean a living room with home theater equipment. I mean a small movie theater in his house, complete with a lobby that had a popcorn machine and movie posters in the same lit-up frames you would see at a real theater. Inside were red plush seats and not a big screen TV mounted on the wall, but a real movie screen (albeit, smaller than your typical one). That was just about the coolest thing I had ever seen, and it became a dream that someday I would be able to have a similar home theater. (Now that I’m older, I realize it will never happen.)

Although Ebert became widely known because of the TV show, his career began and ended with the written word. The thumbs up/thumbs down rating system that he and Siskel introduced provided a simple way to offer opinions to the mass audience (and was sometimes scoffed at by more “serious” critics for being too simplistic), but what kept Ebert relevant for me even long after I’d stopped watching the show was his writing. He wrote about film so knowledgeably, passionately and entertainingly. Reading Ebert, you could see how smart he was and how well he understood film, yet he always talked about it in a way that was accessible and straightforward. He was the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, and right up until the end — as the lengthy “leave of presence” blog post linked at the beginning demonstrates — he was still writing with warmth and enthusiasm.

His comments sometimes resulted in angry reactions from those whose work he panned, but if anyone engaged in a war of words with Ebert, they were bound to lose. Director Vincent Gallo did not take kindly to Ebert’s scathing review of his film The Brown Bunny at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Gallo hurled insults, but Ebert’s way with words made him the winner of that feud. Another memorable diss from Ebert came in 2005 when he commented on Rob Schneider’s verbal assault of Los Angeles Times critic Patrick Goldstein, who had raked Schneider’s film Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo across the coals. Yet despite verbal altercations such as these, Ebert’s humanity and passion for film always won out, and even Gallo and Schneider couldn’t stay mad. After The Brown Bunny was shortened, as mentioned in the article linked above, Ebert interviewed Gallo and the two cleared the air. Schneider naturally disagreed with Ebert’s assessment of his work, but respected him nevertheless, and even sent flowers after one of his bouts with cancer, a gesture which Ebert wrote about on his website.

While Ebert’s health problems didn’t keep him from watching and writing about films, they resulted in a physical transformation so startling that it made me sad to look at him, no matter how much bravery and humor he displayed in handling his physical deterioration. The details of his disease and the toll it took on his body are documented in an excellent profile that appeared in Esquire in 2010. I remember when it came out, the accompanying picture was the first time I had seen him since his jaw had been removed. The photo made my heart hurt. But Ebert wasn’t going to be defined by his disease or what it did to him, and even now after his death, his legacy will remain that of an unstoppable champion of movies. The film festival he’s hosted in his native Illinois for 15 years was set to take place this month, and will proceed as planned. Known as Ebertfest, its purpose is to spotlight movies that have been ignored or forgotten by the general public and which Ebert felt deserved more attention. (It was originally known as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival.) Ebert will also be the subject of a documentary called Life Itself, based on his 2011 memoir of the same name. The project, which Martin Scorsese and Oscar-winning screenwriter/director Steven Zaillian are executive producing, has been in production for some time, with Ebert’s participation. Its director, Steve James, made the documentary Hoop Dreams, which both Siskel and Ebert named as the best movie of 1994.

When Ebert announced his “leave of presence” this week, I had a sinking feeling that this latest case of cancer would be the one that took him away, but I thought it would be a matter of months at best, weeks at worst. Did he know how close the end really was when he penned that final journal entry? If he did, he chose not to say goodbye. Instead, he talked about the things he was looking forward to doing and how he would be occupying his time. Yet his final public statement did read as a farewell, even as he looked ahead to work not yet done and movies not yet seen. An impressive trick to pull off, but probably easy for someone who had such a way with words.

With Roger Ebert now joining Gene Siskel in the great beyond, I’ll go ahead and sadly say what so many others have since yesterday: the balcony is closed.

Thanks to both of you for opening it to us in the first place.


*March 2018 – The video with the opening credits, initially included in the post, has since been removed from YouTube. I replaced it with the version seen here, sans opening credits.


  1. The first thing I would always do after seeing a movie was check what Ebert wrote. Even as recently as last week. And when I’d occasionally find that he hadn’t reviewed a given film, I’d be pissed. I often found that he articulated just what I was thinking in a much clearer way than I could have ever done myself. His work will be missed… especially his reviews of bad movies. Nothing compared to a brutal Ebert takedown. Peace out, Roger.


    Comment by Ryan C. — April 5, 2013 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

  2. I forgot you had that autographed picture. I’d like to put in a plug for the piece of Roger Ebert writing I found only years later – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Everyone should see it. Kids especially.

    Comment by Alan Burnce — April 5, 2013 @ 6:31 pm | Reply

    • He’s probably one of the only professional film critics, if not THE only one, who actually wrote a movie that got made and widely seen.

      Comment by DB — April 6, 2013 @ 5:20 pm | Reply

  3. Watching their show was definitely a weekend ritual. Here’s my favorite editorial cartoon about his passing =

    Comment by Jim — April 9, 2013 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

  4. More remembrances of Ebert, mostly from filmmakers. It’s nice to see these comments. People who make movies often complain about critics. It’s much less often you hear how much a critic helped a movie get noticed. If you have a small movie or one that’s tough to market, and it gets embraced and championed by critics, it can mean the difference between obscurity and national attention.


    Comment by DB — April 11, 2013 @ 12:24 pm | Reply

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