Populist film critic Roger Ebert dies

04/05/2013 12:00 AM

04/06/2013 8:54 AM

America's best-known film critic, Roger Ebert, was an intellectual populist who bridged the gap between old-school academic criticism and the blogosphere's quick-hit movie reviews.

Ebert, who died Thursday at age 70 after a long battle with cancer, was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a prolific tweeter, with no disconnect in between. Though an erudite student of film, he was above all a lover of movies, and imparted that love through whatever outlet best reached his audience.

Even as the influence of critics waned with "review-proof" summer blockbusters, Ebert continued to stay popular and relevant.

The Chicago Sun-Times movie critic for 46 years, he first reached out to millions of film fans through syndicated newspaper reviews, and became a household name through his movie-review TV shows with Gene Siskel, and later, Richard Roeper (after Siskel died in 1999). It was on their show that Ebert and Siskel introduced the "thumbs up or down" judgment that would become shorthand for movie reviews.

Ebert embraced technology as it came. Unlike many film reviewers of his generation, he used the Internet and social media avidly, saying goodbye in his own way Tuesday through his blog.

He would be stepping back from regular reviewing, he announced, because of a recurrence of cancer.

"So on this day of reflection, I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me," Ebert concluded in his post. "I'll see you at the movies."

He already had lost his ability to speak and much of his jaw in his battle with thyroid cancer. Yet his critical voice never was silenced.

Ebert continued to review films through most of his illness, and offered his musings on films, politics and other matters to his 830,000 Twitter followers.

Like most of his reviews over the decades, Ebert's more recent critiques easily incorporated the profound and the accessible. He wrote that "Amour," winner of the 2013 foreign-language Oscar, might be tough going for some people because it confronted the realities of aging and illness, but they should see it anyway:

"Why would we want to see such a film, however brilliantly it has been made? I think it's because a film like 'Amour' has a lesson for us that only the cinema can teach: the cinema, with its heedless ability to leap across time and transcend lives and dramatize what it means to be a member of humankind's eternal audience."

Born June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Ill., Ebert, the son of a union electrician, caught the journalism bug early. A friend's father, city editor for the local newspaper, gave him a tour of the building as a boy.

"We went back to the print shops and the linotype operator set my name in type for me – a piece of lead (that said) 'Roger Ebert,' and you could put it on a stamp pad," Ebert told The Bee in 2005. "That was it for me."

He began work as a sportswriter at age 15 and spent much of his free time in movie theaters. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he edited the newspaper and joined the campus film society, and in 1967 combined his two loves when he became film critic at the Sun-Times.

Ebert saw 500 films per year and reviewed about half of them. He maintained a newspaperman's work ethic long after he became more famous than most of the directors he interviewed. Along with writing reviews, taping the TV show and, later, blogging and tweeting prolifically, he wrote books, interviewed stars on the red carpet at the Oscars and chased the hot films at major film festivals.

Gregory Favre, former executive editor of The Bee, worked with Ebert in Chicago. Favre was then managing editor of the Sun-Times. He remembered the critic's tremendous drive.

"Of all of the hundreds of talented writers I had the privilege of working with through the years, Roger was not only the most prolific of all, his work was pure from the first word to the last period," Favre wrote via email.

Ebert even gave screenplay writing a go. He penned three scripts for B-movie director Russ Meyer, most notably for 1970's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." (Which Siskel panned, by the way, as "gratuitously violent.")

A graceful, clever writer who followed his own instincts, Ebert became the first film reviewer to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, in 1975. Yet his criticism existed apart from that of more ivory-tower critics. He was essentially a populist in his seeming desire to be, first and foremost, entertained.

"I go to the movies anticipating a good time," he told Playboy magazine in 1991. In turn, he and Chicago Tribune critic Siskel, whose televised sparring began in 1975, turned criticism into its own form of entertainment. Their "thumbs up, thumbs down" trademark was adopted by millions of moviegoers, and their heated but good-natured discussion of films provided lively viewing.

Though their television partnership forever linked them in moviegoers' minds and they were great friends off-camera, the critics continued their fierce print rivalry throughout the run of their show.

By the time Sun-Times columnist Roeper joined Ebert permanently on the show in 2000, Ebert was an institution, and the only newspaper critic with a solid relationship to a national audience – even if that relationship at times consisted of audiences balking at his assessments.

Through his TV shows, website and social media, Ebert furthered the sense of accessibility he had fostered throughout his career. At film festivals such as Sundance and Toronto International, Ebert took his seat, usually near the back of the theater, and gladly engaged audience members who approached him before films. He would not simply hold court, but interact with fellow film fans, discussing the movie they were about to see or the state of cinema in general.

Favre recalled a dinner with his friend Ebert several years ago at a local restaurant during a visit by the film critic to Sacramento.

"Everyone who walked by our table stopped to chat with him or to give him a thumbs-up," Favre said. "But he never let his celebrity get in the way of who he was, first and foremost, a newspaper writer who loved the business to the very end."

Ebert's favorite films were among the oldest – the silent comedies of Buster Keaton. But he always championed exciting new directors. He told The Bee that he was the first critic to review – and love – a Martin Scorsese film (an early version of 1967's "Who's That Knocking at My Door?"):

"I said in the review: 'In 10 years, this is going to be one of our greatest American directors.' And (Scorsese) said to me, 'Do you think it's going to take that long?' It didn't, because he made 'Mean Streets' and 'Taxi Driver' within that period."

Over the years, Ebert earned the respect of cinema's greatest directors.

Ebert "wrote with passion through a real knowledge of film and film history, and in doing so, helped many movies find their audiences," director Steven Spielberg told the Associated Press. His death is "virtually the end of an era, and now the balcony is closed forever."

But as Ebert demonstrated again and again, arts criticism is not arts cheerleading. In 1974, the year for which Ebert's work was awarded the Pulitzer, he gave three out of four stars to Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather, Part II," which was named the year's best picture at the Oscars.

"It reveals a certain simplicity in Coppola's notions of motivation and characterization that wasn't there in the elegant masterpiece of his earlier film," he wrote.

Coppola somehow weathered the criticism. But unlike Scorsese and Coppola, acknowledged as masters early in their careers, some filmmakers needed an extra boost. For them, Ebert established his Overlooked Film Festival, or Ebertfest, presented each spring by his college alma mater.

When a favorite young director made choices with which he disagreed, Ebert's sense of disappointment – betrayal, even – was palpable. Having raved about M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 film "Signs," he summoned the withering tone he saved for his harshest reviews in discussing the filmmaker's much derided "twist" in his 2004 follow-up, "The Village": "To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes," Ebert wrote.

But unlike some critics, Ebert didn't grow grumpier as he aged. On more than a few occasions, Ebert's grade for a picture would be the best among the nation's major critics, extending good will, for example, to the otherwise scorned 2006 film "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties." His generosity sometimes suggested a certain relaxing of standards with age and with his illness.

But more than those things, it testified to his genuine love for movies. If a talking, animated cat can take one's mind off troubles for a few minutes, then why not buy a ticket?

Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @carlameyersb.

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