Roger Ebert 1942-2013
“I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.” Roger Ebert.
It’s apt that this titan of journalistic excellence thought of his entire life as a movie, considering that movies were his life. He also said “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.”
Born in Urbana, Illinois, an only child, Ebert’s interest in journalism began when he was a student (a classmate of David Ogden Stiers) at Urbana High School, as a sports writer, covering state-wide high school sports for The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois. He began taking classes at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an early entrance student, completing his high school courses while also taking his first university class. After graduating from Urbana High School in 1960, Ebert then attended and received his undergraduate degree. While at the University of Illinois, he worked as a reporter for the The Daily Illini and then served as its editor during his senior year while continuing to work as a reporter for the News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana. After completing a semester at the University of Cape Town on a Rotary fellowship, Ebert returned to the U.S. and was accepted as a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. Needing a job to support himself, he applied to the Chicago Daily News, hoping that, as he had already sold freelance pieces to them, he would be hired by editor Herman Kogan. Instead Kogan referred him to the city editor Jim Hodge at the Chicago Sun-Times, who hired him as a reporter/feature writer in 1966. The following year, Eleanor Keane, the film critic for Sun-Times left the paper and her job was given to Ebert and the rest, as they say, is history. He was 24 years old.
Roger Ebert would become the most influential, powerful and respected film critic in history whose knowledge of the technical aspects of film making made listening, reading or watching his breezy reviews an entertaining learning experience. He considered film a relevant art form that could have a positive or negative influence on society and critiqued them as such. Opinions about the qualities of any film is purely subjective and as he grew older and his taste evolved, his reviews encompassed so much more than just giving reasons why a film was good or bad. Ebert became keen on the relationship between a film and its intended audience, how a director applied his/her craft to any given project, the ability of actors to nuance a role, how the score and cinematography work together as a cohesive unit to be a major contributing factor to a film’s success and a movies ability to withstand the test of time. It was obvious that Ebert loved movies but unlike his peers Pauline Kael, Rex Reed and Judith Christ, Ebert held a very healthy respect for the genre and I think that’s what set him apart from all the others…that and his undeniable eloquence and passion when discussing film with his across town rival: Gene Siskel, film critic for the Chicago Tribune on their popular PBS television show At the Movies.
He and Siskel were accessible and entertaining, forgoing both celebrity flash and brain-busting film theory in favor of simplicity: two guys sitting in the balcony of a fake theater, talking about summer blockbusters and indie films with a passion that occasionally spilled over into personal insults.“We were very close and friendly,” Roger once said of his relationship with Siskel. “Except when we were fighting.” The show became one of my favorites because of all the bantering back and forth with both sides firmly entrenched in their own opposite opinions. Those were the films I always made sure to see. Gene Siskel died in 1999 and the show continued with rotating co-hosts until Richard Roeper permanently took the vacant chair in September 2000, but the show was not the same without Siskel’s presence.
As a critic Ebert also had thoughts on the current movie industry and was an outspoken opponent of the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system, repeatedly criticizing its decisions regarding which movies are suitable for children. He also frequently lamented that cinemas outside major cities are “booked by computer from Hollywood with no regard for local tastes”, making high-quality independent and foreign films virtually unavailable to most American moviegoers. He also advocated for the salvaging of the once majestic and opulent movie houses that once thrived in major metropolitan areas as well as small towns across the country that made going to the movies a memorable experience as opposed to the sterile, utilitarian boxes of multiplexes that show movies today.
Roger Ebert was also a prolific writer publishing 20 books. Most were about movies: The Great Movies that consists of 3 volumes, Roger Ebert’s Book of Film, A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length about some of the worst movies ever made, a cookbook The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker. a memoir Life Itself and The Perfect London Walk a walking tour of Ebert’s favorite city outside of Chicago.
He was the first film critic to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, just one of many awards collected by Ebert during his long, illustrious career including recognition from the American Society of Cinematographers with a Special Achievement Award, the Directors Guild of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award as did CINE. He was even recognized for his contribution for best audio commentary for Citizen Kane…I wish he would’ve done more of those. He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (but he had to pay for that).
He teamed with Russ Meyer to co-write a few screenplays which did poorly at the box office but eventually became cult classics: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls 1970, Up! 1976 and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens 1979.
During his career as a film critic he estimated he saw in excess of 10,000 films. Ebert named Ingrid Bergman and Robert Mitchum as his favorite actors of all time and deeply admired Martin Scorsese. He also stated that if he was stuck on a desert island with only one movie to watch it would be Citizen Kane 1941.
At age 50, he married trial attorney Charlie “Chaz” Hammelsmith in 1992. He explained in his memoir, Life Itself, that he “would never marry before [his] mother died,” as he was afraid of displeasing her. In his July 2012 blog entry, “Roger loves Chaz”, of his love for his wife, he wrote, “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading”. Chaz Ebert is now vice president of the Ebert Company and has acted as emcee at Ebertfest, his annual film festival.
He was also a recovering alcoholic having quit drinking in 1979. He was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and had written some blog entries on the subject. He was a longtime friend of, and briefly dated, Oprah Winfrey, who credited him with persuading her to syndicate The Oprah Winfrey Show, which became the highest-rated talk show in American television history. He was also good friends with film historian and critic Leonard Maltin and considered the book Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide to be the standard of film guide books.
In 2002 Roger Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer that greatly altered his appearance and left him literally speechless. With the help of his devoted wife Chaz and new technology that turns text into speech, Ebert could still make public appearances and continue to churn out reviews for the paper while making daily multiple entries in a variety of social media sites as well as his blog. He finally lost his battle on April 4, 2013 and his absence will be hard to get used to.