My tribute to departed film critic Roger Ebert, who taught me how impactful a truly great arts critic could be
There are a few TV critics who have reached the heights of journalism, its true.
But the first arts critic who showed me just how far you could take this gig was film critic Roger Ebert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, screenwriter, TV personality and blogger who was so cool he once dated Oprah and has Martin Scorsese working on a film about his life.
Ebert died today at age 70, days after posting a blog notice that he would be stepping back from daily film criticism to treat a recurrence of cancer. Given his heroic pace of blogging and columnizing even after cancer took parts of his face, that should have been a troubling sign. (another poignant sign; its tough to call up that post now, because so many people are trying access it.)
The newspaper where he worked for 46 years, the Chicago Sun-Times, acknowledged his death today with a sprawling obituary noting he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer, becoming a household name by joining rival critic Gene Siskel in 1975 for a special kind of TV program reviewing movies.
For a kid growing up in nearby Gary, Ind., it was amazing to see these two rivals sit together in a theater and unveil clips of upcoming movies with expert analysis, to boot. After PBS syndicated the show nationally as Sneak Previews in 1978, I’d keep tabs on what Siskel and Ebert said on TV when I eventually saw the films they talked about.
No slight to Siskel, a brilliant critic who died while recovering from surgery to treat brain cancer in 1999, but I quickly discovered my tastes mostly aligned with Ebert, who was willing to judge populist movies on their merits and never seemed to take the film business too seriously (when I speak on arts criticism, I often use Siskel as an example of how even a critic with whom you regularly disagree can be helpful in deciding where to spend your money and time).
That TV show turned both men – and their handy, “two thumbs up, two thumbs down” review system – into household names, eventually parodied everywhere from Saturday Night Live to the pages of Mad magazine.
When death took Siskel and cancer took Ebert’s voice, those of us who had grown up with their work felt a tremendous loss. But Ebert refused to let his commentary be stilled, writing an amazing film blog and website which attracted other top-tier talent, such as Pulitzer winning TV critic Tom Shales.
Others will likely write more comprehensive and insightful tributes to a man who remained the country’s most popular film critic until his passing.
But I wanted to take a little time to give one thumbs up to a critic who was an important reason for why I have the wonderful life and career I’ve had.
See you at the movies, indeed.