A half dozen years ago, after an overnight flight to Nice to attend the Cannes Film Festival, I spotted movie critic Roger Ebert in a baggy tweed jacket waiting at the airport’s baggage carousel for his luggage.
He was looking way thinner and markedly more frail than when I had seen him last a year or two earlier. He had only recently come through a prolonged and grueling medical ordeal after his diagnosis of cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands and chin. He could no longer speak and wore a prothesis to replace his now missing chin.
“Just couldn’t stay away?” I teased.
He smiled, as well as he was able, and gave me one of his signature thumbs-up gestures.
Ebert, easily the nation’s most recognizable film critic because of his long-running TV show, died Thursday in his beloved Chicago at age 70. He had announced only two days earlier that his cancer had returned and he would be taking what he called a “leave of presence” from The Chicago Sun-Times, where he had been weighing in on movies for almost 50 years. (His reviews were also syndicated nationally.)
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I knew Ebert a little. I was the movie critic at People magazine for many years and regularly used to bump into him and his lovely wife, Chaz, at film festivals, where we’d trade gossip about what was worth seeing and which movies you could skip. And I sat across from him on the set of his popular TV show in 1999, when I joined the parade of movie critics auditioning (unsuccessfully, in my case) for the spot opposite him following the death earlier that year of his longtime TV partner and crosstown rival, the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel, who died of a brain tumor at age 53.
You didn’t have to know Ebert, though, to know that he loved movies. He was always unabashed about expressing his enthusiasm.
If he thought a movie was terrific, he wanted everyone to know it. Take, for example, his review of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (1996): “To watch it is to experience steadily mounting delight," he wrote, "as you realize the filmmakers have taken enormous risks, gotten away with them and made a movie that is completely original, and as familiar as an old shoe.”
If he hated a film, well, he told you that too, in no uncertain terms. The notorious turkey Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999), starring Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider, is "the kind of picture those View n’ Brew theaters were made for," Ebert said, "as long as you don't View.”
Cancer robbed Ebert of his ability to speak, but his voice as a writer remained as urgent, eloquent and enthusiastic as ever, even on Twitter, which he embraced.
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Many will best remember Ebert for the thumbs up/thumbs down school of criticism that he and Siskel pioneered on their TV show, At the Movies. An earlier variation of the popular program first went on the air locally in the Windy City in 1975, the same year that Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. The show went national in 1978 when PBS began airing it as Sneak Previews.
In it, the two would sit opposite each other in faux movie theater seats and give their often contrasting views on films about to open, always ending their reviews with a thumbs up or thumbs down. The two were a felicitous mismatch: not only did they often disagree on the quality of the film under discussion, but Ebert was rotund with a full head of hair and Siskel a skinny guy who was fast going bald. They were Mutt and Jeff at the movies, for a media age.
Their up-and-down thumbs routine may have been movie criticism at its most reductive, but it became the program’s most beloved feature. Ebert eventually trademarked the gesture.
The emphasis on thumbs belied Ebert’s writerly talent. He wasn’t a fancy scribe — he never used a $2 word when a 10-cent one would do — but he was clear, to the point and easy to understand. He could also be wickedly funny. John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth (2000), Ebert vented, “is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It's not merely bad; it's unpleasant in a hostile way.”
Despite that kind of killer line, what distinguished Ebert more than anything was his generosity. Even after more than four decades of reviewing movies, he was never cynical or ho-hum.
You always got the feeling, reading his reviews or watching him on TV, that Ebert wanted to love every movie he saw and was sincerely disappointed when a movie failed to measure up.
Let’s hope that only the best ones, maybe Citizen Kane over and over again, are shown where he is now.