Film critic Roger Ebert dies

In this March 5, 2010 file photo, Roger Ebert arrives at the Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)
In this March 5, 2010 file photo, Roger Ebert arrives at the Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)
Posted: April 05, 2013

Roger Ebert, America's moviegoer-in-chief, died Thursday in his beloved Chicago where for 46 years his ardent reviews drew readers to the Sun-Times. He was 70 and since 2002 valiantly had faced down cancers of the salivary and thyroid kind.

Mr. Ebert posted a blog Tuesday announcing that he was taking a "leave of presence" from intensive reviewing while he received radiation treatments for yet another cancer recurrence.

Among his many accomplishments, Mr. Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. For 23 years was the co-host of one of television's longest-running programs, Siskel & Ebert and the Movies, with his colleague and frequent antagonist, the late Gene Siskel. They were the Laurel & Hardy of film criticism, these newshounds from competing papers who introduced class films to mass audiences and made movie reviewing a participatory sport. They boosted a movie's fortune with a "thumbs up" or sealed its doom with a "thumbs-down." They were a team for 23 years, five years longer than Laurel & Hardy.

After Siskel's death in 1999, Mr. Ebert continued the show with Richard Roeper until his near-fatal brush with salivary cancer in 2006. His subsequent reconstructive surgery left him resembling, as he wrote in his 2012 memoir, Life Itself, "an exhibit in the Texas Chainsaw Museum." Though surgery deprived him of speech, his writerly voice grew in eloquence.

Of all Mr. Ebert's contributions to film culture - which include 17 books - the greatest were his love of movies, which was contagious, and his ability to express that love in language as accessible as it was entertaining. He was a movie omnivore who delighted in Japanese cinema, American action flicks and exploitation movies (he even wrote one, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, in 1970).

His movie reviews were founded on the principle that "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it's about it." And they expressed complex ideas in simple terms.

This most prolific and prodigious of movie observers also reveled in absurdity, compiling a glossary of movie conventions. Consider "Ali MacGraw Disease" (suggested by the film Love Story), defined as "A movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches." Or the "Classic Car Rule" ( suggested by Risky Business and Ferris Bueller's Day Off): Whenever a beautiful clssic car - usually the pized possession of an unsympathetic father - is introduced at the beginning of a film, that car will be wrecked by then end of it.

Roger Joseph Ebert was born on June 18, 1942 in Urbana, Illinois, a college town that produced a disproportionately high number of men of letters, including Mark van Doren, William Gibson and David Foster Wallace.

The only child of an electrician and a bookkeeper, he displayed a surplus of energy that found many outlets. At Urbana High, he was senior class president, founder of the Science Fiction Club, and a budding sportswriter who covered high-school athletics for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. At the News-Gazette, his colleague Bill Lyon - later a fixture at The Inquirer - gave him the only advice he needed about newspapering: Don't wait for inspiration, just keep writing till it's done.

While his mother held out the hope he would become a priest, Mr. Ebert leaned toward his father's wish that he become a sportswriter. After he received his bachelor's at the University of Illinois and was accepted into its doctoral program in English, he answered the siren call of the Chicago Sun-Times. There, as he recalled in his memoir, he witnessed the sunset of the Front Page era and the noon of the Mike Royko/Irv Kupcinet generation of columnists.

The cub reporter aspired to become a two-fisted figure like Royko, the chain-smoking, hard-drinking night owl who introduced him to blackberry brandy and knew every rat and rathole in the Windy City. Instead in 1967, the same year Pauline Kael wrote her first review for The New Yorker, Mr. Ebert, then 24, was named the Sun-Times movie critic.

He learned by doing. He watched a movie and reported his experience. His first-person accounts established intimacy with his readers. (Mr. Ebert would later formulate this critical rule: "No matter what your opinion, every review should give some idea of what the reader would experience in actually seeing the film. In other words, if it is a Pauly Shore comedy, there are people who like them, and they should be able to discover in your review if the new one is down to their usual standard.")

In Life Itself he wrote of his dominating, alcoholic mother and his decision, in 1979, to join Alcoholics Anonymous and not follow her sodden path. The alcoholic became a workaholic. He briefly dated a local TV personality and told her to syndicate her show. Oprah Winfrey followed his business advice. The woman who won his heart was Chaz Hammelsmith, an Equal Opportunity Commission lawyer, whom he wed in 1992.

Mr. Ebert's partnership with Siskel on the television show initially called Coming to a Theater Near You catapulted Chicago's local heroes to international celebrity. Besides writing more than 250 reviews a year and taping a show every week, Mr. Ebert was a fixture on the lecture and movie-appreciation circuit. "Democracy in the Dark," a film-school exercise he took on the road that involved showing a movie and inviting audience interpretation, exemplified his fundamentally democratic belief that everybody had interesting observations to make about film.

An early adapter to the Internet and a pioneer blogger, by 2000 Mr. Ebert drew even more readers to rogerebert.com, which indexed all of his reviews and aired his views about the hypocrisy of the MPAA ratings system that dispensed PG-13 ratings to movies with extreme violence and R ratings to those with mild sex.

The epitaph Mr. Ebert would have enjoyed most was that offered yesterday by President Obama: "For a generation of Americans . . . Roger was the movies."

Mr. Ebert is survived by his wife, a step-daughter, two step-grandchildren, 8,000 movie reviews and 840,000 Twitter followers.


Read Carrie Rickey at carrierickey.com.

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