Certainly Roger Ebert will be remembered for many things. Winning an unprecedented Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for film criticism is just one of them. For me, though, beyond that distinction Roger was far more unique in the pantheon of the truly great critics of our time, and all time. Along with Gene Siskel he figured out a way to take film criticism to the masses in a way it never really had been, at least on a national basis. With their patented ‘2 Thumbs Up’ and ‘2 Thumbs Down’ reviews on their pioneering PBS and later syndicated weekly TV show, this pair not only brought the job of a film critic into the national consciousness, they also made it fun. And accessible. The ‘thumbs’ signature was really the forerunner of a site like Rotten Tomatoes, an instantly recognizable label that moviegoers could use like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval when it appeared in an ad as it did hundreds of times.
Related: Reactions To Roger Ebert’s Death
Unlike so many critics today Roger Ebert loved movies, even when he hated them, an attribute so many of today’s self-absorbed so-called critics greatly lack. In fact one of my favorite personal Ebert memories happened at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival at a mid-day screening of Vincent Gallo’s unwatchable The Brown Bunny. Not only did he call it then the worst movie in the festival’s history, he added, “I have not seen every film in the history of the festival, yet I feel my judgement will stand”. At one excruciating point in the film he even started singing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” out loud, eliciting laughter from what was left of the audience at that point. I wondered at the time “now who has the chutzpah to do that?” only to find it was Roger. It was the beginning of a bit of a media feud between Ebert and Gallo (Gallo called him a “fat pig” and Ebert responded by saying, “I can always lose weight but you will always be the director of The Brown Bunny”.) But then he did a remarkable thing, and when the film was cut by 26 minutes over a year later, agreed to see it again and wrote a piece actually reversing his opinion. In addition to being sharp, funny, insightful, interesting, opinionated, informed and complex in his writings he was also fair. That’s because Ebert was also a true fan of the medium and a guy who really knew movies inside and out, their history and their promise. And he never gave up on them.
Movies were his life as they are to many of us in ways that are hard to explain — even though that life in recent years included his wonderful wife, Chaz, who became as big a film fanatic as Roger. How could she not? Even when illness intervened and Roger couldn’t make the trip to all those film festivals from Cannes to Telluride to Toronto where he was such a beloved fixture, Chaz would be there representing the Ebert “brand” and making us still feel his strong presence. There could be no doubt the reason he lived to see 70, against the odds of his health crisis, is due in no small part to Chaz — and of course the movies. Always the movies. This is a man who wrote more than 10,000 reviews in his lifetime, numerous books, and when the world changed and his world changed due to an especially vicious form of cancer that robbed him of his voice he found other ways to do the thing he loved. Even into his seventh decade he was easily one of the most effective and enthusiastic adopters of social media, constantly tweeting and retweeting his views on film to his more than 800,000 followers.
Did I say he was unique? Each year when speculation about who might win the Honorary Oscars, or Governors Awards as they are now called, Roger Ebert’s name would always come up as a possibility. An Oscar for a movie critic? It didn’t happen, but Ebert would have been richly deserving of the honor. And now he is also that rare movie critic who is the subject of a movie himself: Steve James’ work in progress is based on Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. Ebert had been cooperating on the film (executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Steve Zaillian) right up until the end. It’s ironic that it is the one movie he never got to see finished. It would be nice to think that somehow wherever he is now that maybe he will, and that maybe the movies won’t stop for this man who loved them and made us love them and understand them so well. And when was the last time a U.S. President put out a statement on the passing of a film critic as President Obama has done today? “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 movies to take us somewhere magical…The movies won’t be the same without Roger”, Obama’s statement read quite correctly.
It is not just the way Ebert watched that we remember with fondness and gratitude now, but the way he lived even in those incredibly tough final years where he set his finest example of courage. As he wrote about his mortality in that 2011 memoir, “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting”.
Thumbs up Roger for a life well-lived.