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Film critic Roger Ebert dies at age 70

Film critic Roger Ebert, here in 2003 with a special recognition from the American Society of Cinematographers, was the first movie critic to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Film critic Roger Ebert, here in 2003 with a special recognition from the American Society of Cinematographers, was the first movie critic to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Published Apr. 5, 2013

Roger Ebert, a voice for generations of movie lovers even after it was silenced by cancer, died Thursday in Chicago at age 70.

The first movie critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and alongside the late Gene Siskel the first to raise criticism to a multimedia pop art form, Mr. Ebert leaves behind a legacy of unminced words and unabashed enthusiasm for cinema, good or bad.

Just two days earlier, Mr. Ebert had announced he would take a "leave of presence" from daily writing about films when cancer was discovered in a leg, after jaw and thyroid cancer in 2006 left him unable to speak, eat or drink.

The ensuing years saw Mr. Ebert attending fewer screenings and public events, wearing a prosthetic chin and "speaking" through a computer program composed from dozens of commentaries he did on DVDs of movies he admired. Although far from the celebrity spotlight he had enjoyed, Mr. Ebert remained vital online and in print, as with his 2011 memoir Life Itself.

Reading Life Itself suggests that losing his voice may have provided Mr. Ebert with a new sense of freedom in writing.

His candor about dealing with his alcoholism and illness without self-pity, the intimate reveries and gracious spreading of credit for his success, came from a place beyond the daily reporting grind.

I broached the notion to him in an August 2011 email and received this reply:

"The form of a memoir has sent me searching within, where I have been surprised that so many memories reside even after being untouched for many years. I didn't 'try' to remember things, but found that they well up during the act of writing. I believe being forced to turn to writing as my best form of communication may have awakened latent abilities."

And also inspired new ones. Mr. Ebert became one of the Internet's loudest voices advocating cinema and, at times, social and political action. His Twitter account attracted more than 837,000 followers and his blog through the Sun-Times site is one of the world's most referenced movie sites. Mr. Ebert's online efforts earned him a Webby Person of the Year award in 2010.

Mr. Ebert began his career as the Chicago Sun-Times movie critic in 1967, three years after graduating from his hometown University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Loyalty to his birthplace and alma mater led Mr. Ebert in 1998 to create Ebertfest, an annual showcase of movies he deemed unjustly overlooked. The 15th edition is April 17-21.

Mr. Ebert's reputation as a film critic expanded as the movie industry changed to a system he and Siskel later dubbed "the blockbuster imperative," emphasizing wide releases of expensive popcorn flicks, kicked off by the success of 1975's Jaws. That same year, Mr. Ebert received a Pulitzer Prize for criticism and debuted a weekly PBS series first titled Coming Soon to a Theater Near You and later Sneak Previews.

Film criticism would never be the same. Armed with wit, cinema instincts and gladiatorial thumbs — later copyrighted — Mr. Ebert and Siskel engaged in intellectual warfare each week, each never missing an opportunity to zing the other. Suddenly artistic criticism was more than cerebral, it was personal.

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"I think perhaps we try to rescue two hours of our readers' lives," Mr. Ebert told me in an email, explaining why our profession matters. "According to us."

Film buffs and filmmakers alike used social media Thursday to express their feelings about Mr. Ebert's death:

"The movies won't be the same without Roger," President Barack Obama's Twitter account quoted him as saying.

"Roger Ebert. Clear-eyed dreamer, king of the written word," tweeted Jerry Maguire writer-director Cameron Crowe.

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

There is much to fondly recall about Mr. Ebert: His love of his wife of more than 20 years, Chaz; his pride of screenwriting one of the most enjoyably bad movies of all time, 1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; his devotion during Siskel's final days before his death from brain cancer in 1999. Too much for one remembrance to include.

We'll just have to wait for the movie, and there's one in the works, a documentary based on Life Itself, produced by Martin Scorsese.

Not coming soon enough to a theater near you.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter @StevePersall. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.