Roger Ebert’s death is mourned by many, but I will remember it as bringing down the curtain on a special guy in a special time: He was multimedia before multimedia was cool.
In today’s angrily polarized political times, I particularly appreciate how well this master scrivener and film scholar could disagree with his unlikely TV partner Gene Siskel, a fellow film genius, without being disagreeable. Or obnoxious.
Since his recent death in Chicago at age 70, much is being said about Ebert’s 40-plus-years as a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. There’s a lot to say. In 1975 he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. More recently, he became the first to have a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. With his unlikely co-host, Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, who died in 1999 at age 53, they took film criticism to television and became more famous than many of the stars they covered.
Columnists and critics can be lone wolves, even in the hubbub of daily newsrooms, which may help explain why the cohosting almost didn’t happen. Back in 1975, Ebert told Time magazine much later, he initially favored the idea of the show then-called Sneak Previews, until he heard that his partner would be his rival newspaper’s movie critic. “The answer was at the tip of my tongue: No” Ebert said.
Siskel said later that he was no more enthused than Ebert, but they worked it out. They also proved to be savvy enough about drama to stage a bit of their own, even in the placid ponds of public television, where they initially appeared.
“In the early days of doing shows with Gene Siskel,” Ebert recalled in his 2011 memoir, Life Itself, ‘‘part of our so-called chemistry resulted because, having successfully made my argument and feeling some relief, I felt personally under assault if Siskel disagreed. This led to tension that, oddly, helped the show.”
Yet, as passionate as they could get about their well-founded opinions, they impressively packed a lot of info and opinions into their exchanges, yet almost never talked over one another. They knew better. When more than one person is talking, nobody can hear either one — and these fellows always wanted to be heard.
But, looking back as someone who knew both of them in those days, I believe the show worked because, onstage or offstage, they were two genuinely nice guys. That counts for a lot in a local media community in which everybody is no more than one person away from knowing everyone else.
I feel privileged to have known Gene as a fellow Tribune staffer and Roger as a jolly denizen in the 1970s and ’80s of the neutral after-hours turf that some called the “Bermuda Triangle of Chicago media workers”: Riccardo’s, O’Rourke’s and the Old Town Ale House, places where folks like Studs Terkel or Mike Royko might drop in.
But, while TV brought them big fame and clout, which they often used to bring deserved attention to lesser-known independent films, I miss both men mostly for their written reviews. The simplicity of the Siskel-Ebert signature thumbs up/ thumbs-down rating system was criticized by some of their fellow film critics. But anyone who read their work knew they packed some solid, multi-layered analysis behind those thumbs.
In his last decade, battling cancer since 2002, Ebert presented the rest of us with another sort of example to follow. Even after cancer surgeries in 2006 cost him part of his jaw and his ability to eat, drink or speak, he refused to slow down. If anything, he sped up. He wrote books, launched a film festival, blogged and twittered prolifically and continued to write hundreds of movie reviews per year.
The empowering nature of social media seemed to liberate him to release his inner pundit. Whether he entertained, enlightened or enraged, he was worth our attention.
He closed his final post, published a day before he died, with his signature sign-off: “I’ll see you at the movie.” I don’t know if I’ll see him at the movie, but I will hear his voice.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.