GOODBYE ROGER EBERT!
An Appreciation by L.L. Soares
Roger Ebert died today in Chicago, following a long battle with cancer. He was 70.
Ebert wasn’t just another movie critic. For his generation, he might just have been the gold standard that other critics were compared to. Most people, like me, first became aware of him around 1978, when PBS began syndicating the show he had with Gene Siskel. It was first called “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You” when it debuted in Chicago in 1974, then got its name changed to “Sneak Previews” when PBS started showing it nationally. In 1982, Tribune Entertainment began syndicating it, with a new title, “Movie Views.” And in 1986, it was syndicated by Buena Vista Television as “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies.” Doing research for this article, I had no idea the show had so many names. I thought it was always called “At the Movies,” but I was wrong. The show popularized the “thumbs up/thumbs down” rating system for movie reviews, which the duo trademarked.
Ebert was the house movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. In 1975, he was the first film critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize. His partner on TV, Gene Siskel, wrote for the Chicago Tribune, and they were competitors and sort of enemies. The idea to pair them together on a movie review show was an inspired one. People didn’t think it would work, but they stuck together until 1999, when Siskel died of a brain tumor. It was said that off-screen, over the years, the two of them became very close friends, almost like brothers.
Roger Ebert continued to review movies on TV, going through a period where he had many guest co-hosts, to see who had the most chemistry with him. This rotating co-host system lasted awhile, but eventually, Richard Roeper, another critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, became Ebert’s permanent co-host in September 2000.
A high point of his career was an unusual one for a critic. Ebert wrote the screenplay for the 1970 cult movie BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, directed by grindhouse legend Russ Meyer. Unusual because it was not a high-brow movie, but a crazed smorgasbord of sex and violence, BEYOND is revered by fans of bizarre cinema. Supposedly, Meyer and Ebert were going to collaborate on another film, with the punk band the Sex Pistols, but it fell apart before filming began. The proposed title was “Who Killed Bambi?”
Ebert wrote lots of books about movies, and started the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival, which has been held annually in Champaign, Illinois, since 1999.
Ebert’s long struggle with cancer in recent years included operations on his thyroid, salivary glands and chin. He lost the ability to eat, drink or speak. Recent appearances on television revealed a startling new appearance, due to the removal of much of his lower jaw, and he had taken to communicate using a computerized voice system. Despite these setbacks, he was still intent on returning to television with a new movie criticism show.
When he lost the ability to speak, Ebert also became an avid blogger, continuing to see and review movies regularly (and talk about more personal topics) at his blog .
For many of us, Ebert was someone we watched every week on TV for decades, fueling our own love of movies, and the Siskel and Ebert show was one of the inspirations for the original Cinema Knife Fight column by myself and Michael Arruda.
We here at Cinema Knife Fight will remember Ebert fondly.