Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Roger Ebert, the dean of film critics, has died

Roger Ebert, respected movie critic and proud Chicagoan, passes away at the age of 70.

Thu, Apr 4, 2013, 22:55


Just one day ago, representatives for Roger Ebert – the fellow who, in our time, best combined serious and populist film criticism — declared that the great man was, following a decade fighting cancer, taking a “leave of presence” after the disease made an unwelcome reappearance. It transpires that the statement was a little optimistic. This evening it was confirmed that Ebert had died at the age of 70.

Roger, a proud Chicagoan, joined that city’s Sun-Times newspaper in 1966 while still a postgraduate student at the University of Chicago. Just 12 months later, he got the main reviewing job. By 1975, he had achieved sufficient respect to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. That same year he moved into television and ultimately formed a lively partnership with Gene Siskel, critic for the rival Chicago Tribune, that led to them becoming the most influential film reviewers in the United States. The duo’s show, characterised by witty banter, gave the world the “two thumbs up” accolade and, later, when more precise measurement was required, the “two thumbs WAY up” refinement.

Predictably, the populist nature of the show triggered some sniffy remarks from critics who believed themselves above such trivialities. But a glance at even the briefest snippet of Roger’s writing confirmed that he was a stylist of note, a rigorous analyst and a man immune to intellectual laziness. He was also a great deal of fun. Everyone’s favourite piece of Ebert trivia concerned his script for Russ Meyer’s scurrilous Beyond the Valley of the Dolls from 1970. Nobody watching that (largely intentionally) hilarious film could doubt we were dealing with a man who greatly loved life in all its garish hues.

In recent years, he achieved a reputation for liking a great many more films than he loathed. That may have reflected the degree of perspective that accompanies being diagnosed with a potentially lethal disease. Never mind that. He had the greatest gift you could, as a critic, hope to happen across: an ability to engage the reader even when that reader disagrees violently with the review. Everything he wrote demonstrated an engagement with the material. His shots were never cheap ones.

I never exactly met Roger. But I did lurk next to him on one happy occasion. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, I was standing by the upstairs entrance to the Palais — the one reserved for proper nobs, not me — when a barely recognisable figure approached with an attending nurse. By that stage, having lost large parts of the lower area of his face to cancer, he looked very unlike the round, burly man who jousted so amusingly with the (by then dead) Siskel. He was unable to talk. But he still moved with the energy of a man who loved the profession he had been talented enough to dominate for 40 years. Don’t trust any film-goer who has no time for our Roger.

One recent story nicely summed up his zip and lack of pretension. In 2005, Rob Schneider, the much slagged comic actor, reacted badly to a review in the Hollywood Reporter. ”Maybe you didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven’t invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter Who’s Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers,” Schneider wrote of the Hollywood Reporter’s Patrick Goldstein. Ebert jumped enthusiastically to his colleague’s defence. “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks,” Roger quipped. Nicely done, sir.

We really will never see his like again. Really. A sad, sad day for the art of wittering about movies. There will be more to follow as further tributes rush in.

Two thumbs, way, way, way, up, Roger. Go quietly.