Today, Hollywood has lost one of its brightest stars, and it’s a man who wasn’t up on the big screen, and wasn’t behind the camera. Roger Ebert has passed away at the age of 70 due to cancer. Just a few days ago, he wrote on his blog that his cancer had returned, and that he was taking a “leave of presence” from his job as chief movie reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Not a leave of absence, as most people would; he still intended to keep working and writing reviews. But he intended to let other reviewers that he had hand-picked handle the majority of the reviews, while he would review only those movies that he wanted to review. He sounded as if he was looking forward to it, describing it as a lifelong dream. One supposes that after a lifetime of reviewing movies, no matter how terrible, that the idea of watching only those movies that actually sound interesting would indeed hold a lot of appeal. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. But perhaps it’s better in some ways that he goes out at the top of his game, after having had one of his most prolific review-writing years (he wrote in that blog post that he had written somewhere around 300 reviews in 2012.) We can remember him as the great writer and reviewer he was.
I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that Roger Ebert was the best-known movie critic in the world. Nor would it be an exaggeration to say that if somebody is writing reviews today and isn’t part of Ebert’s generation then they were probably inspired by Ebert. His show with Gene Siskel, At the Movies, was a mainstay on television for years, including after Siskel’s own lamented death, also due to cancer. I remember watching Siskel & Ebert when I was young. Weekend television was fairly predictable for me. I’d watch Saturday morning cartoons, I’d watch reruns of The Muppet Show, and I would watch Siskel & Ebert. It was, almost certainly, the first “grown up” television show I ever watched. It would be years, in most cases, before I ever saw the movies they were talking about. But they were fun to watch. They had intelligent debates — debates, not fights, and not simply “I like this, you don’t.” They stated their reasons. They had fun with it. People talked with their friends about movies as they walked out of the theatre; now here were two well-educated guys doing the same thing on national TV, and they talked about them the same way as everyone else. They discussed everything from arthouse films to popcorn blockbusters in depth, and they boiled it down to terms that even a grade-schooler could understand, with their trademarked “Thumbs Up” and “Thumbs Down” final say. They never dumbed it down, but it was always accessible.
This was just as true in Roger Ebert’s writing. He had an easy style to read, one that perfectly balanced erudition and casual speech. You could tell Ebert had a college education in writing, but you barely needed a high school education to understand him. He didn’t bust out five-dollar words (such as erudition — sorry) just to show off his vocabulary; instead he showed his wit with his turns of phrase. When you read his reviews, you knew where he stood. If he liked it, it showed through in his praise. If he hated it, he made it clear in no uncertain terms why. And his reviews were themselves a form of entertainment; in fact, the worse the movie, generally the more fun his review would be. He had no malice in his reviews — I always got the sense that he would truly love to see his most frequently-lambasted filmmakers turn out something great — but if he had to write a negative review, he made sure that it still provided some entertainment for his readers.
Like any critic, Ebert sometimes wrote reviews that I disagreed with. We’re no two of us alike, after all. But it was always possible to respect Ebert even when I didn’t agree with him, because he was always honest. You always knew where he stood on something, and why. He didn’t automatically praise arthouse films simply out of some view that, as a critic, he should respect the artistry; if he didn’t like it, he didn’t like it and said so. He didn’t bash popcorn films just because they were lowbrow; if he was entertained, he openly admitted it, praised the film, and said why. When he received a backlash from Transformers fans over giving Revenge of the Fallen one star (out of four), the fans said that he just wasn’t the right audience for giant robots fighting each other. Ebert’s response was to point out he’d given the first film three stars. He once explained his rating system as saying that it wasn’t what a film was about, but how it was about it — or to put it another way, if a lowbrow popcorn flick was a well done lowbrow popcorn flick it would get a high rating from him. He was a movie critic, but he wasn’t the stereotypical snob. He was a populist, writing for the masses, and reading a review from him felt like he intended it to be a recommendation from a friend.
When he had biases, he let them be known, turning them into a virtue of sorts through his honesty. He was open about not being a big fan of the superhero genre. So when he gave Thor a middling review, comic book fans who were regular readers of his knew that their own reception of it may be a bit better. Contrariwise, when he gave Spider-Man 2 his highest grade, fans knew that it must really be something special.
And at the risk of sounding schmaltzy, his personal life was also somewhat inspirational — and not in the typical Hollywood “oh, look at this poor suffering person, aren’t they wonderful” sort of way. Rather, it was the way he just kept trucking on. Cancer took his jaw. He didn’t shy away from cameras. Cancer took his voice. He kept writing reviews even if he couldn’t do television any more. Cancer took his ability to eat; he wrote a cookbook because he still enjoyed the smell of food. He embraced the internet with more enthusiasm than most men a third his age. He wasn’t just a prolific movie reviewer, but a prolific blogger as well, writing about politics, his life, and, of course, movies.
He probably did more for Hollywood than any one of its stars (and if he doesn’t get the “main spot” in next year’s Oscar tribute, something’s wrong). By making movie criticism a form of entertainment in and of itself, he increased the amount of entertainment people got from movies. He made it cool to not just watch a movie, but think about it. There’s little question, in my mind, that he’s the main reason there’s a major subculture of armchair movie critics on the internet.
Rest in peace, Roger Ebert. You will be missed greatly.