Remembering Roger Ebert: a populist movie critic who truly loved movies
I’ve only met a few people who loved movies as much as Roger Ebert did.
I’ve known fewer still who played a bad hand so well and so bravely. The cancer that finally got him was an exceptionally cruel disease — disabling and, as many of us saw in his final years, as disfiguring as anything dreamt up by any horror-movie-master.
Funny how upstarts become institutions. When Ebert and his Chicago Tribune rival, Gene Siskel, first started their Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down routine — first locally, then nationally — I know a lot of movie critics who wearily moaned, has it come to this? Two Thumbs UP???!!!! Or One Thumb Down and…
Had the legacy of Pauline Kael, Graham Greene, Francoise Truffaut, Andrew Sarris and dozens of others been reduced to a coupla thumbs?
That’s how many people felt. Especially those who hadn’t thought up this Roman Emperor approach to film criticism before the Chicago guys did.
The first time I met Ebert, he and Siskel were attending a junket in Dallas, Texas, for “Nine To Five.” This was one of the last junkets they ever attended because their fame was already distancing them from the pack.
It was an odd weekend to be in Dallas — and not just because Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin were all in the same room together.
It was also the weekend during which the world would learn Who Shot JR? Siskel and Ebert had pulled their chairs away from the tables where we were being fed and placed them in front of the TV to find who, indeed, had almost done Larry Hagman in (My guess was Jane Fonda).
Later that night, I found myself in a taxi cab with Gene Siskel, headed for Diehly Plaza. You see, it was also the anniversary weekend of when JFK was shot.
I never saw Siskel again—in person, that is. But in one of those weird twists of fortune, when he became ill with a brain tumor, I replaced him as TV Guide’s critic and movie writer, with an audience of 13 million readers. To this day I don’t know how that happened. I’m pretty certain he didn’t know me or my work well enough to suggest me.
However I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Ebert several times, and he was always unfailingly nice.
He was a colleague at the National Society of Film Critics, but he never made any meetings I attended. That’s probably because they hold their vote the first weekend after New Year’s — not the most appetizing time of year to be Up North, even if you are in Sardi’s or the Algonquin. It’s cold and nasty. And the holiday decorations are long gone.
Ebert and I met “formally” at an early morning screening in Cannes. He was sitting behind me and my husband, and somebody introduced us. He was with his gorgeous wife-to-be, Chazz. I only saw him one other time during the Festival…and he was snoring. As was just about every other important critic who’d been on the party lists the night before. That’s when I realized the Cannes Film Festival was a very different event for the likes of Roger and the likes of me.
I next saw him at the Festival That Dares Not Speak its Name, by which I mean the Savannah Film Festival which, for Lord knows what reason, does just about everything imaginable to keep the Festival — which is an excellent one — a secret.
Are we not good enough for SCAD? I mean, aside from me, who’d all but invited myself, and Ebert, who was there as a featured guest, there were NO major movie writers. Nada. None.
This time I interviewed Ebert, and he was, of course, a total pro. I didn’t ask him anything that he hadn’t already been asked a thousand times before. He was patient…extremely so.
However, my very favorite memory of him is when he was sharing his knowledge with other movie-lovers — especially students. I watched him do this twice: Once at the “shhhhhhhh…” Savannah Film Festival, with “The Birds,” and once at the Virginia Film Festival (almost as close-mouthed) with “Citizen Kane.”
Each time, he would begin with simply showing the movie. Then, using this wonderfully old-fashioned clicker — like something out of an Old School’s old school — he’d freeze frame and start pointing out things. Then he’d ask questions. Then he’d take questions or comments from the audience. Nothing was too dumb or too movie-geek addled for him to deal with.
His sessions would go on for about two hours, and I never saw him get more than about 15-20 minutes into either movie. That’s how engaging he was — and how much he wished to engage with the students.
Maybe he wasn’t the best movie critic ever — though he was the first to win a Pulitzer. Maybe he wasn’t the best writer. Or perhaps his critical parameters could be seen as doggedly determined to be perceived as populist.
“Hey, I’m one of you,” he seemed to insist to his readers. “Not one of THEM (as in snobby, elitist film critics).”
The truth is, he was one of all of us. And that, perhaps, was his particular and powerful magic.