By Colin Woodward
Last weekend, I finished watching the documentary Life Itself, which is about the Pulitzer-Prize winning film critic, Roger Ebert. The film, which tracks Roger’s life and death, is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name. Ebert is one of my heroes, a gifted writer who did for film criticism what Elvis did for popular music. His memoir is a very interesting and well-written book, giving insight into the career of the best American film critic.
Mustaches and Sweater Vests
If you remember the 1980s, you might remember Sneak Previews and/or At the Movies, and/or Siskel & Ebert, which starred Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. They were two feuding Chicago film critics (Roger from the Sun-Times, Gene from the Tribune), who would review a handful of movies per week. They were the Lennon and McCartney of film criticism. In contrast to the Beatles, whose bitchfests mostly were kept private, with Roger and Gene the arguments were right up front for everyone to see. In fact, the fights were what made them so fun to watch. At one point in Life Itself, we see Gene call Roger an “asshole” after a particularly catty exchange. That comment never aired, of course, but there was plenty that did on their program that was equally as heated.
From PBS to the Big Time
I first watched Roger and Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews, which aired on PBS. Roger and Gene eventually went into syndication, which made them not only more famous, but rich. Other critics tried to fill Roger and Gene’s balcony seats at Sneak Previews after they left, but the show was never as good.
Roger and Gene inspired a slew of imitators of varying quality, from Ned Flanders wanna-be Michael Medved to sometimes funny, often idiotic Rex Reed. Roger and Gene, though, were the best–smart, funny, tough, and to-the-point. They argued bitterly at times. They could also join together to champion movies and directors, from Spike Lee to Martin Scorsese, that deserved better than they were getting. Their love/hate relationship on air made them household names, whose “thumbs up/thumb’s down” became a trademark.
Roger Hate, Hate, Hated This Movie
Gene was a worthy foil to Roger. But for me, Roger has always been the movie critic. I became a big Ebert fan in the late 1980s. I got Ebert’s Move Home Companion for Christmas one year. I read it a lot, and the negative reviews were the best. Unlike other critics, however, when Roger gave a really negative critique, I felt like the movie deserved it. He was critical, but not nasty. I could quote from memory such classic pans of I Spit on Your Grave, Caligula, and Mother’s Day. I even used his Caligula review to write a report on the Roman emperor for my high school Latin class. With Roger, you learned not just about movies, but history, living in Chicago, and his own life.
I liked Roger not just because he was on TV or because he liked movies. It was because he was a damn good writer. He still has one of the strongest voices of anyone I’ve ever read. Anyone. I read and re-read his reviews because of the flow of the prose, not because I always agreed with what he said (1.5 stars for Usual Suspects, seriously?).
Roger, dare I say it, brought a certain poetry to his writing. Take, for example, his review of the movie The Lonely Guy. The Lonely Guy is a not-so-great Steve Martin movie. But rather than tear it to pieces, as he could have, Roger began the review with a descriptive passage about the experience of walking to the movie. It was a cold day in Chicago. The snow, he wrote, was coming down “gray and mean.” As he passed a coffee shop, a few “bums” shared a joke. When he got to the cinema, the ticker taker said, “Good luck, you’re gonna need it.” Roger made the review better than the movie. For those making movies, be careful: one should have more fun watching your movie than reading about it.
Critics Out of Control
I used to tape the old Siskel & Ebert shows and watch them repeatedly. I remember the opening. I remember the theme music. I remember what they said about individual movies. The best episode I ever saw was when Roger and Gene hammered the 1989 Tony Danza “film” She’s Out of Control. Rather than be mean (though Roger gave it a rare zero stars rating), they discussed the movie with a kind of exhausted sense of despair. The movie was beyond ridicule. Gene said it was so rough watching She’s Out of Control that he actually considered quitting his job as a movie critic. But, Gene said he saw Say Anything later that day and “all was right with the world.”
At one level, Roger was nerdy: a portly film geek from wind-swept Urbana, Illinois, a sweater-vest wearing dilettante with big glasses. At another level, he was incredibly cool. The guy got paid to watch movies! He interviewed Lee Marvin and countless other great actors and directors. He gave Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a four star review long before every hipster in America talked about how great it was. In short, Roger had my dream job.
Roger was a loyal Chicagoan in an era when it seemed the White Sox would never win a World Series and no one had heard of Barack Obama. Roger was also cool because he was something of a counterculture figure. He criticized what corporations were feeding us at the box office. Even though his show was produced by Buena Vista Productions, a subsidiary of Disney, Roger was not the Disney type. For years he was a hard drinker (until he quit).
He was also something of a horn dog. He wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an awful, trippy 1970 movie that is one part musical, porno, comedy, and violent exploitation film. Roger was friends with Russ Meyer, the director of Dolls, whose boob fetish Roger shared. In a famous 1977 essay in Rolling Stone on the Sex Pistols, Meyer said of Roger, “At the Chicago Sun-Times, he’s Dr. Jekyll. With me, he’s Mr. Hyde. He’s really into tits.”
In the 1980s and 90s, Roger was not only famous, he had street cred. He was satirized repeatedly in Mad Magazine (the true measure of your pop cultural importance). He appeared on SNL and The Tonight Show. He sat in with Howard Stern. Charles Bukowski even mentioned Roger (called Rick Talbot) in his book Hollywood. Buk was not the kind of guy to suffer fools gladly. It was rare when he took a quick liking to anyone. But in Hollywood, Buk wrote of Roger as we knew him: a likable film nut. Bukowski, writing of Talbot, said “I loved Rick’s lack of sophistication. That took guts, when you were on top, to say that you enjoyed what you did, that you were having fun while you did it.”
Best Critic Ever
Yes, Roger always seemed to be having fun at the movies, in a way Pauline Kael did not. As one friend of Roger’s puts it succinctly in the movie Life Itself, “fuck Pauline Kael.” Roger won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the first film critic to do so. When other critics were content to publish terse reviews (I’m thinking here of Kael and Leonard Maltin), Roger published full length pieces. Yes, that meant he had to leave many films out of his Movie Home Companions. But longer reviews allowed Roger to do the film justice–discussing more of everything, from plot to themes, direction, shots, performances, and technical achievements. Because his writing was so good, it was okay that he didn’t review everything. No one can. But if you wanted more, you could always buy the Martin & Porter guide, with its ever diminishing font sizes.
Roger’s Last Words
Sadly, when Gene died in 1999, things started going badly for Roger, too. It took him a long time to find a replacement for Gene. Roger probably should have shut his show down. He continued on, but Gene was irreplaceable. Roger in the end decided, unfortunately, on the rather obnoxious Richard Roeper (I had been partial to Kevin Smith, whom Roger had as a co-host for a while). Roger and Roeper never had the same chemistry with Roeper that he had with Gene. And then Roger started having medical problems.
Roger had to leave TV for a while as well as film reviewing. I’m sure that for him not reviewing films was worse than not being able to appear on television. Even after his cancer took him hostage, he managed to review several films a week. He began blogging, where he discussed not just movies, but his personal life, including his marriage to Chaz. In 2010, Esquire published the provocatively titled article, “Roger Ebert’s Last Words.” It was not about Roger’s death (though he had come close during his treatments), but his loss of speech. Roger might have had to speak through a computer program, but his voice was still strong in his reviews..
The movie Life Itself isn’t always easy to watch. Roger lets the film crew into his hospital room. By then, the state of his appearance after multiple facial surgeries was not pretty. But Roger wanted people to see what he was going through. Shockingly, Roger had no idea that Gene had brain cancer until after Gene had died. In contrast, Roger wanted to be more open and honest about his condition, which took every ounce of his strength and ultimately, his life.
The film underscores that Roger was always accessible. He apparently read every email and blog comment that came his way. I wrote to him several times, and he responded twice on his blog. Roger loved movies, and he loved his fans. Many people are celebrities. It is the rare celebrity who makes time for you, despite how busy he is.
The Grim Future of Film Criticism
Roger died in April of 2013. He was one of the last of a generation of great and influential movie critics. He was in the journalistic old school in which men banged on typewriters in smoky offices that were a short walk from a bar where all the writers hung out.
Some critics remain popular, such as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. But they don’t have their own TV shows. They don’t publish a book a year of new reviews. Others, as Ebert did, have won Pulitzer Prizes. But awards can’t save a medium dying from democracy. Even before Roger died, movie criticism was being killed by the internet. Anyone now on amazon can be a movie critic. Rottentomatoes posts aggregates, where a film is judged by percentages. Movies now are held before the judgment of a faceless mob.
In the process, the individual voice gets lost. Roger and Gene’s thumbs up/thumbs down might have been gimmicky and authoritarian. But it also gave filmmakers something to think about aspiring to, outside of awards and good box office.
It’s not just the internet that’s killed movie criticism. Roger was doing his best work in what might’ve been the golden age of modern American film (falling somewhere between 1967 and 1994). Film seems to have reached new depths of creative bankruptcy, with Hollywood content to give us “reboots” (i.e., remakes, i.e. warmed over tripe) and sequels galore (you’ll be happy to know that Fast and Furious 8 is going to take place in New York).
Are there great films still being made? Of course. Tarantino and Scorsese and Spielberg are still around. Women and African Americans are winning Oscars for directing and writing as well as acting. But good films are a niche market these days, and the Hollywood establishment has a stranglehold on the collective imagination. A film’s success depends on the first weekend, and Hollywood seems more risk averse than ever. Even when I was young, films could build an audience. They stayed in theatres for months, even a year. People would see a good movie two or even three times before it closed.
It used to be that the best films were usually the ones that made the most money every year. I’m thinking of The Godfather, Bonnie & Clyde, The Exorcist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Star Wars. Not so much anymore. Titanic was maybe the last great Hollywood film to make an insane amount of money.
I’m sorry Roger is gone. I miss him. Were he alive, he’d still be writing about, watching, and loving film. But since he left us, I feel like he hasn’t been missing much at the box office.
Colin Woodward is a historian, archivist, and film buff. He’s the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.