Two big thumbs up today for the late Roger Ebert on the occasion of his birthday. His passing last year left a void in film culture that may never be filled.
His impact on my own life, too, was immense. I was 11 years-old when he became film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times (our family newspaper) and my childhood love of movies (thanks, Jerry Lewis) blossomed under the light of Ebert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning criticism and reviews. He wrote so artfully and accessibly about movies that I was willing to follow him anywhere. My introduction to Ingmar Bergman came courtesy of a weekly series he hosted on our local PBS station in the early 1970s, one of his early moonlighting gigs before he was famously teamed with Gene Siskel for “At the Movies.” From documentaries to independent films to world cinema, he broadened my cinematic horizons.
Ebert could compel wary filmgoers to venture outside their comfort zones (the multiplex) and take a chance on an arthouse film as unconventional as “My Dinner with Andre.” Ebert and Siskel’s rave review about the film on “At the Movies” was broadcast a week before the underperforming film was scheduled to close in theatres. “Business increased dramatically,” co-star and writer Wallace Shawn told me in a 1995 interview. “The people came and it moved on to other cities. If they hadn’t spoken so passionately and eloquently about it and made it seem so interesting, I think it would have been consigned to the scrap heap of history.”
Ebert had become arguably the most-watched, recognized and influential film critic in the world. I first became really cognizant of this in a previous job working in non-theatrical film distribution serving the college market. On one occasion, I was going my best to sell a rural Texas community college programmer on booking “Oh, Heavenly Dog.” Despite the star power of Benji, the wonder canine, and Chevy Chase, the student booker passed with these words, “Ebert and Siskel didn’t like it.”
TV’s unlikeliest stars—two decidedly unglamorous Chicago newspapermen sitting around talking about movies—became pop culture icons doing panel with Johnny, parodied in Mad Magazine and on “SCTV” and, in perhaps their finest hour, affectionately spoofed on the animated series, “The Critic,” on which they voiced themselves.
For many years I wrote about him or sought him out for a quote for this story or that. As busy as he was with his Sun-Times and “At the Movies” workloads, not to mention the film classes he taught in which he would parse a film classic shot-by-shot, he was usually accessible.
And then, to my everlasting pride and honor, he invited me to write for him on his website, rogerebert.com. I joined a community of writers whom he had recruited from around the world.
How generous was that? His award-winning website remains prime real estate, but he chose to open that space to thrillingly diverse voices and perspectives and broaden the ongoing, ever-evolving conversation about the world's most popular art form. So in addition to a tirelessly prolific talent and insatiably curious mind, he also nurtured an online community as up for intelligent conversation about the movies as he was. And not just the movies; some of the most provocative writing he ever did in his final years were his posts about politics and social issues, such as evolution, which triggered even more hullabaloo than his defiant posts about video games not being art.
As a Chicagoan, I also deeply appreciated his love for his native state, which, too, was a source of some of his most inspired writing on his online journal; nostalgic reveries on old haunts and autobiographical portraits that evolved into his memoir, "Life Itself" (which has been adapted for the screen by “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James, and opens in theatres on July 4). He became a new ambassador for Chicago, a city whose name has been sullied by gangsters and crooked politicians. But when it came up in conversation that I was from Chicago and that I wrote about movies, the invariable follow-up question was always, “Do you know Roger Ebert?”
Well, not really. We exchanged emails on occasion and I would get a thumbs-up greeting if I saw him at a screening. But I will always be grateful for the opportunity he gave me and treasure the encouraging emails he sent. And the example he set in his writing, his work ethic and his courage in the titanic cancer struggles that robbed him of his speech, but never his voice, is an inspiration and a gift for which I can never fully thank him.