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Film Critic Roger Ebert Dead At 70

Roger Ebert, who started out as a film critic in Chicago and, after teamed with his cross-town rival Gene Siskel, went on to become famous nationwide, has passed away at the age of 70:

Roger Ebert loved movies.

Except for those he hated.

For a film with a daring director, a talented cast, a captivating plot or, ideally, all three, there could be no better advocate than Roger Ebert, who passionately celebrated and promoted excellence in film while deflating the awful, the derivative, or the merely mediocre with an observant eye, a sharp wit and a depth of knowledge that delighted his millions of readers and viewers.

“No good film is too long,” he once wrote, a sentiment he felt strongly enough about to have engraved on pens. “No bad movie is short enough.”

Ebert, 70, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, and who was without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic, died Thursday in Chicago. He had been in poor health over the past decade, battling cancers of the thyroid and salivary gland.

He lost part of his lower jaw in 2006, and with it the ability to speak or eat, a calamity that would have driven other men from the public eye. But Ebert refused to hide, instead forging what became a new chapter in his career, an extraordinary chronicle of his devastating illness that won him a new generation of admirers. “No point in denying it,” he wrote, analyzing his medical struggles with characteristic courage, candor and wit, a view that was never tinged with bitterness or self-pity.

Ebert was both widely popular and professionally respected. He not only won a Pulitzer Prize — the first film critic to do so — but his name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005, among the movie stars he wrote about so well for so long. His reviews were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers worldwide.

The same year Ebert won the Pulitzer — 1975 — he also launched a new kind of television program: “Coming Soon to a Theater Near You” with Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel on WTTW-Channel 11. At first it ran monthly.

The combination worked. The trim, balding Siskel, perfectly balanced the bespectacled, portly Ebert. In 1978, the show, retitled “Sneak Previews,” moved to PBS for national distribution, and the duo was on their way to becoming a fixture in American culture.

“Tall and thin, short and fat. Laurel and Hardy,” Ebert once wrote. “We were parodied on ‘SNL’ and by Bob Hope and Danny Thomas and, the ultimate honor, in the pages of Mad magazine.”

His colleagues admired him as a workhorse. Ebert reviewed as many as 285 movies a year, after he grew ill scheduling his cancer surgeries around the release of important pictures. He eagerly contributed to other sections of the papers — interviews with and obituaries of movie stars, even political columns on issues he cared strongly about on the editorial pages.

In 1997, unsatisfied with spending his critical powers “locked in the present,” he began a running feature revisiting classic movies, and eventually published three books on “The Great Movies” (and two books on movies he hated). A second column, his “Movie Answer Man” allowed readers to learn about intriguing little details of cinema that only a Roger Ebert knew or could ferret out.

(…)

 

Roger Joseph Ebert was born in Urbana on June 18, 1942, the son of Walter and Annabel Ebert.His father was an electrician at the University of Illinois, his mother, a bookkeeper. It was a liberal household — Ebert remembers his parents praying for the success of Harry Truman in the election of 1948. As a child, he published a mimeographed neighborhood newspaper, and a stamp collectors’ newspaper in elementary school.

In high school, he was, as he later wrote, “demented in [his] zeal for school activities,” joining the swim team, acting in plays, founding the Science Fiction Club, co-hosting Urbana High School’s Saturday morning radio program, co-editing the newspaper, being elected senior class president.

He began his profesional writing career at 15, as a sportswriter covering the high school beat for the News-Gazette in Champaign-Urbana.

Ebert went on to the University of Illinois, where he published a weekly journal of politics and opinion as a freshman and served as editor of the Daily Illini his senior year. He graduated in 1964, and studied in South Africa on a Rotary Scholarship.

While still in Urbana, he began free-lancing for the Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News.

He was accepted at the University of Chicago, where he planned to earn his doctorate in English (an avid reader, Ebert later used literary authors to help explain films — for example, quoting e.e. cummings several times in his review of Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

But Ebert had also written to Herman Kogan, for whom he freelanced at the Daily News, asking for a job, and ended up at the Sun-Times in September of 1966, working part-time. The following April, he was asked to become the newspaper’s film critic when the previous critic, Eleanor Keen, retired.

“I didn’t know the job was open until the day I was given it,” Ebert later said. “I had no idea. Bob Zonka, the features editor, called me into the conference room and said, ‘We’re gonna make you the movie critic.’ It fell out of the sky.”

Ebert’s goal up to that point had been to be “a columnist like Royko,” but he accepted this new stroke of luck, which came at exactly the right time. Movie criticism had been a backwater of journalism, barely more than recounting the plots and stars of movies — the Tribune ran its reviews under a jokey generic byline, “Mae Tinee.” But American cinema was about to enter a period of unprecedented creativity, and criticism would follow along. Restrictive film standards were finally easing up, in part thanks to his efforts. When Ebert began reviewing movies, Chicago still had an official film board that often banned daring movies here — Lynn Redgrave’s “Georgy Girl” was kept off Chicago screens in 1966 — and Ebert immediately began lobbying for elimination of the censorship board.

He had a good eye. His Sept. 25, 1967 review of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde” called it “a milestone” and “a landmark.”

“Years from now it is quite possible that ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s,” he wrote, “showing with sadness, humor and unforgiving detail what one society had come to.”

It was. Though of course Ebert was not infallible — while giving Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” four stars in the same year, he added that the movie’s “only flaw, I believe, is the introduction of limp, wordy Simon and Garfunkel songs.”

It was only a couple days ago that Ebert posted a piece at his blog at the Chicago Sun-Times announcing that he would be stepping back from his hectic reviewing and writing schedule because his cancer had returned. Obviously, his health situation was far worse than hinted at in that post.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. A Big Thumbs Up

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  2. Liberal Capitalist says:

    .

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    He was a beautiful writer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. michael reynolds says:

    The man was a writer. I feel about Ebert the way I feel about Stephen King. These are both guys with nothing left to prove but who followed physical trauma by working harder than ever. Losing Ebert is like losing George Carlin: both irreplaceable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  5. Mary G says:

    I will miss him. For a long time he was the only person I followed on Twitter. What a great writer and great human being. Oddly enough, I usually agreed with Siskel, but Roger had the passion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. stonetools says:

    +1 on missing him. All around good guy and great media critic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. Woody says:

    His personal blog is as good as his Greatest Movies series. A thoughtful man with a fine sense of humor (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which he co-wrote with Russ Meyer, is so bad, it’s great.

    Condolences to his wife.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. Drew says:

    The world is diminished. He was an asset. Michael is correct in his comment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. Kylopod says:

    I was always a huge fan of Ebert, and I still own a tattered, falling apart book of his reviews from 1989 and earlier. Of course I often disagreed with his opinions and found him infuriating at times, but I can think of no other critic who was just so readable. (One observation that surprisingly few people have made is that he seemed exceptionally focused on the visual aspects of filmmaking. This was both a strength and a weakness of his, but he did more than any other critic to teach me about the way camerawork and imagery contributes to the moviegoing experience.) As for his personality, perhaps his greatest quality as a public figure was that he never seemed to take himself too seriously. That may not sound like that great a compliment, but after suffering through so many writers with monstrous egos, who seem to say things not out of a sincere desire to express their views on the world, but simply in a perverse bid for attention, his easygoing yet passionate attitude toward the subjects he chose to write about came as a big relief. He demolished the stereotype of the critic as a curmudgeon or hack, without ever seeming like he was trying to. While deeply knowledgeable about film, he managed to make movie criticism seem easy and fun. He will be missed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. Hal 10000 says:

    I disagreed with his politics (and sometimes his reviews) but loved his writing. I could read an Ebert review I thought was flat out wrong and emerge enlightened and entertained. How many critics can you say that about?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. aFloridian says:

    This was really upsetting news. Unlike many celebrities a reader of Ebert’s reviews rather felt like they knew the man. I’m sure many Americans feel like their best movie buff buddy is gone. Who will tell us what’s worth watching now?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0