Roger Ebert wasn't the first celebrity film critic. Pauline Kael, Rex Reed, Judith Crist and Andrew Sarris all had high public profiles before him. But in the sheer force of his personality and his influence, Ebert was unique. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and the first to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard. Unfortunately, earlier this week, Ebert received an honor all of us wish could have been postponed for many years: he became the first film critic to be eulogized by a President of the United States. "For a generation of Americans--and especially Chicagoans--Roger WAS the movies," President Obama said April 4, upon hearing of Ebert's death.
Ebert's speaking voice was stilled years before his death, by cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands that disfigured his face and left him unable to either speak or take nourishment by mouth. But through his blog and his continuing columns in the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert spoke louder and more clearly than ever before in the last years of his life. Ebert's blog ranged well beyond the movies, touching on whatever topics interested him. He wrote a lot about the conflict between religion and evolution, and about politics: one of his most memorable columns was an animadversion against the egregious Rush Limbaugh, dismissing him in terms that should have sent Limbaugh into hiding forever. Ebert also wrote about his illness, which he described calmly, logically, and with an utter absence of self-pity. But his best blog pieces were reminiscences--the things he had seen, the places he had been, the people he had met. My favorite piece was Ebert's eulogy for his favorite London hotel--a delightfully, eccentrically cozy place, in his description--which was torn down to accommodate new buildings for the London Olympics.
It was always a treat to encounter Roger Ebert, in print or on "Sneak Previews," the TV show he shared with his late co-host, Gene Siskel. "Sneak Previews" was just as interesting for the sometimes rocky relationship between the hosts as it was for their reviews. (Ebert put it succinctly: "Gene and I are friends--except when we're not.") Siskel was an intelligent, agreeable host, but Ebert was something else again. Ebert's earnest yet witty personality and plain, clear Midwestern voice made it obvious from the beginning that he was the real star of the show. The way he had of explaining his reactions to a movie was so direct and compelling that you had to listen, even if you disagreed with him totally. In a sense, he turned every viewer of "Sneak Previews" into Gene Siskel; we were all engaged in a dialogue with him, sometimes a passionate one.
Ebert was a reporter AND an esthete, and that made him unique as a film reviewer. To read his columns is to realize he cared at least as much about the art of the cinema as Kael and Sarris ever did. But he was also in the great tradition of Chicago reporters--people such as Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, who were his friends and mentors. Ebert had a desire to communicate that bordered on moral fervor, combined with a combative, cut-the-crap attitude he used against anyone he suspected of being a liar or a scoundrel. He was savage toward any movie that set off his bullshit detector. I still remember his outrage toward the 1986 Rutger Hauer thriller, "The Hitcher." Ebert rightly pegged the film as "diseased and corrupt," a sadistic, mean-spirited tale that pretended to be profound. On the other hand, when Ebert praised the life-affirming qualities of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," and placed it on his very last "10 Greatest Films of All Time" list for "Sight and Sound" Magazine, I had to bow to his choice, even though I found the film a qualified success at best.
Ebert could be just as combative in person as he was in print, always when his sense of moral outrage was aroused. Years ago I rented a DVD of a movie about a teenage gang, consisting of bored Chinese-American youths in an affluent suburb. The names of the movie, the director and the actors have been wiped clean from my memory, and a search of Netflix and the Internet failed to restore them. But I have never forgotten the bonus "Making Of" documentary on the disc. In that documentary, the director describes presenting his film at a festival, and being dumbfounded at a press conference when a reporter asked him whether he cared that his film set a bad example for Asian youth. He fumbled for an answer, but fortunately Roger Ebert had one for him. The documentary shows Ebert standing up in a fury and saying, "I cannot imagine a more insulting question than the one you just asked. If this had been a movie about a white gang, you NEVER would have asked it!" Game, set, and match.
Roger Ebert was a force not just for good movies, but for good. I close with a quote from Ebert himself, a quote I hope all of us can endorse at the end: "We must try to contribute joy to the world. That's true, no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always feel this and am happy I lived long enough to find this out."