Roger Ebert, one of the most influential and famous film critics of all-time, has passed away at the age of 70. According to Variety, he died of complications from cancer. In his remarkable life, Ebert wrote more than 15 books including his autobiography, Life Itself, in 2011. In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He also didn’t simply look at cinema from afar, but also participated in the development by writing Russ Meyer‘s 1970 film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Perhaps most notably (and it’s hard to say what’s most notable in Ebert’s life), he and Gene Siskel took advantage of television as the new medium to bring film criticism to the masses. Both wrote for newspapers, but in the age of television, their “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down” brought film criticism to an even wider audience than their Chicago papers could reach.
Hit the jump for my thoughts on Ebert’s passing. Our deepest condolences go out to Ebert’s wife, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, and his countless friends and colleagues.
When I was young, my father and I would watch Siskel & Ebert and the Movies. We enjoyed watching the two spar, and then give their famous thumbs-up or thumbs-down (the sideways thumb helped nobody). In some ways, this was populist film criticism. It was a consumer review that helped average moviegoers decide how to spend their dollars at the box office that weekend. But the duo did far more than simply weigh in on mainstream pictures. They were advocates, and they championed foreign films like the Three Colors trilogy and the indie documentary, Hoop Dreams. I first heard about these movies from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
I won’t say watching Roger Ebert made me want to be a film critic simply because I never expected to land into this profession. But I could never look at my job and not think of Ebert. Who could think of the profession of film criticism and not have Roger Ebert come to mind? This is a man who didn’t simply give out stars, but was also a teacher. He’s the man who would show Casablanca to an audience, and go frame-by-frame to explain its power and significance. His name is synonymous with film criticism and appreciation, and there are few names in history with that distinction.
He was intelligent and influential, but what I admire most about Ebert was his perseverance. Ebert had suffered multiple health problems throughout the past decade. In 2002, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the resulting surgeries eventually left him with the inability to speak. Rather than be silenced, he took full advantage of the Internet and social media, and his “voice” became louder than ever. His previous role as newspaper writer and TV commentator now seemed small compared to the modern audience he reached and spoke to on any subject he pleased.
Sometimes I disagreed with Roger Ebert’s individual reviews, and other times I agreed with him. There were times when I admired his ability to shine a new light on a movie, and other times when I was infuriated with his take on a picture. But I cared what he thought and so did millions of readers who may have been looking to have an opinion reinforced, a nudge on whether or not they should buy a movie ticket, or simply another voice in the discourse about motion pictures.
On April 2nd, Ebert told his readers that a past hip fracture “has been revealed to be a cancer” and that he would be receiving radiation treatment. He said he would take a “leave of presence”, but sounded hopeful for the future. “So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness,” said Ebert. “On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”
He honestly believed in the power of movies to transport us. I hope and assume he also believed in his power of his writing to transport us whether he was providing a history of cinema, telling Rob Schneider his movies sucked, celebrating the Great Movies, or explaining how to use a rice cooker. His passion was undeniable, and it’s a passion that enriched his readers, enhanced their love of cinema, and it’s a passion that will carry on.
You can watch a couple videos of that passion for movies as he talks about his life, and another video where he rails against another critic during a Q&A at Sundance for Better Luck Tomorrow:
Thank you, Mr. Ebert. You will be sorely missed.