To anyone who only knew film critic Roger Ebert from his television persona, arguing with his long-time colleague Gene Siskel, you might characterize Ebert as “the grumpy one.” But when he died this week after a 10-year battle with cancer, the heartfelt tributes from his friends and fellow critics emphatically belied that image.
“I never dated him personally,” as Elaine May used to say about any man she didn’t know, but I watched his show assiduously every Sunday night, just before “60 Minutes.” And if a film got a thumbs up from him (and especially if Siskel agreed), that film went right to the top of my “Must See” list.
Ebert was trained as a journalist. He was pursuing his doctorate when he quit to take on the role of feature writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, where he worked for the next four decades. He became a movie critic in 1967 and eight years later became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. In 2005 he became the first film critic to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
His obituary in the New York Times by Douglas Martin includes the comment, “It would not be a stretch to say that Mr. Ebert was the best-known film reviewer of his generation, and one of the most trusted. The force and grace of his opinions propelled film criticism into the mainstream of American culture. Not only did he advise moviegoers about what to see, but also how to think about what they saw.”
And in an extraordinary tribute, President Obama said, in part, “For a generation of Americans — especially Chicagoans — Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive — capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.”
Just two days before he died, he announced that he was taking “a leave of presence” and would only write reviews of films that he wanted to. Now that he will not be reviewing several hundred movies a year, you will miss him. Even if you never dated him personally.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at email@example.com.