The man who pulled no punches and (along with rival critic Gene Siskel) paved the way for televised film reviewing has passed away from thyroid cancer at 70.
Roger Ebert’s long and storied career as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times started in 1967 and in 1970, he co-wrote the screenplay for the hilariously and deliciously guilty pleasure Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls for Russ Meyer. Ebert and Meyer collaborated a few more times on Beneath The Valley Of The Ultra Vixens, Up! and Who Killed Bambi?, the punk-rock answer to A Hard Day’s Night that was supposed to star The Sex Pistols but sadly never saw the light of day once 20th Century Fox pulled funding and destroyed all the sets. In 2010, Ebert posted the screenplay, originally titled Anarchy In The U.K., on his blog.
In 1975, Ebert also became the first critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism (which is NOTHING to sneeze at) but it was when he began co-hosting a weekly film review show called Sneak Previews for Chicago’s public channel WTTW that the wheels were set in motion.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in happier (and healthier) times
In 1978, rival critic Gene Siskel from the Chicago Tribune was brought on as a co-host when PBS picked up the show to run nationally and the pair became famous not only for their bicker and banter, but the way they would finalize their opinion with either a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” (fun fact: “Two thumbs up” was WISELY trademarked by Siskel and Ebert later down the line).
Even The Simpsons paid homage to the dynamic duo over and over again throughout the years
In 1982, the pair moved on from PBS and launched a similar version of their show for commercial syndication called At The Movies With Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert and in ’86 then moved over to Buena Vista Television to form Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, which the pair did together until Siskel’s death due to complications from a surgery in 1999.
Siskel and Ebert became part of the cultural landscape, parodied in just about every tv show and film worth their salt and, at times, would play themselves; some of my favorite moments come from the Jon Lovitz-animated series The Critic with the duo happily poking fun at themselves.
Ebert went on to host Roger Ebert & The Movies with rotating co-hosts until 2000, when fellow Chicago Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper became his permanent co-host and renamed At The Movies With Ebert & Roeper. And while successful, it just wasn’t the same without Gene Siskel. Roeper and Ebert were missing that biting wit and chemistry Ebert and Siskel shared because although they LOVED to bicker and appeared otherwise, you could tell these men truly loved each other as both friends and colleagues.
NSFW for language but pretty damn hilarious hearing these two drop f-bombs.
Ebert himself described his approach to criticism as “relative, not absolute,” reviewing the film for its targeted audience and then consider value of the film as a whole. And while his positive reviews were great, it was the negative reviews people (including the actors and directors themselves) kinda lived for because of the venomous wit Ebert could spew toward a film he hated.
Coupled with an “I’ll show this bastard on my next film,” attitude, it quickly became a badge of honor to get a bad review from Roger Ebert.
Luckily for you AND me, the fine folks at Thought Catalog compiled a list of 40 gems from his past reviews, including these little darlings that made me laugh heartily.
And my personal favorite, his review of North (starring Elijah Wood and Bruce Willis).
Health problems began to plague Ebert beginning in 2002 when he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer; having the cancer successfully removed that February only to undergo surgery again in 2003 for cancer of the salivary gland followed by radiation treatments to said gland later that December.
In 2006, he again went under the knife to have cancerous tissue near his right jaw removed, losing a section of his jaw bone in the process. July 1st of that same year he was hospitalized again in serious condition when his carotid artery burst near the surgical site due to a side effect of treatment involving neutron beam radiation. Several surgeries resulted in Ebert having to have a tracheotomy during the recovery process, unable to speak and having a feeding tube for meals/liquids. And while Ebert had thought ahead to tape enough episodes to last a few weeks, the extended (and unexpected) hospital stay led to Roeper having guest critics.
Continuous surgeries (including a fractured hip in 2008) and health problems followed Ebert the rest of his days but he soldiered on writing reviews and treating every day as business as usual and in 2005 became the first film critic to get a start on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (and DESERVEDLY so).
Ebert said of his illness in his book Life Itself: A Memoir:
“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”
Ebert was a great fan of social media sites like Twitter and was quite active on the site, including his final tweet announcing and explaining his “leave of presence” from work and duties posted on April 2nd.
Ebert knew his time on Earth was coming to an end, but (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) because he would not stop for death, death stopped for him; as evidenced by another quote from his memoirs.
“To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.”
I grew up in the 70’s and remember watching Siskel and Ebert go at each other over films I was WAY too young to see at the time but remembering what they said about them when I WAS old enough to watch them (and agreeing with them 70% of the time). And although we gamers could never really convince him that video games are INDEED a valid art form, I still respected and admired Roger Ebert in the fact that not everyone likes video games. If we all liked the same things, how boring would that be?
When Gene died, I was heartbroken; with Roger’s passing, I still felt that same amount of heartbreak but finding this Art Shirley cartoon yesterday made me smile.
The balcony may be closed here but I know it’s eternally open where you are now and I take solace in the fact that you and Siskel are together again.
So long, kind sir.
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