Roger Ebert (1942-2013)
By Bill Coffin
Even among those legendary professionals whose work is of such quality and such breadth as to change their profession itself, few stand apart quite so much as legendary film critic Roger Ebert did. From an early age, he became obsessed with cinema and with how movies worked. He was thunderstruck by how Mad magazine lampooned movies, noting that deep down, a lot of them were just recycling the same old ideas. Ebert was fascinated by what movies could and could not do, and he dedicated a nearly 50-year career to writing and broadcasting about the cinema. For 45 years, he wrote regularly for the Chicago Sun-Times, and for his efforts won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the first journalist to do so for film criticism.
Also in 1975, Ebert launched a televised film review show called Sneak Previews, and in 1978, he was joined by his friend, rival and colleague Gene Siskel (who wrote for the competing Chicago Tribune). In 1982, their show became At the Movies with Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, which in 1986 became Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. The show ran like this until 1999, when Gene Siskel died of a brain tumor. In that time, the show was phenomenally popular, and the pair’s trademarked “thumbs up, thumbs down” system of rating movies made both critics household names.
Ebert continued working at a prolific pace until 2003, when he began what would become a protracted battle with multiple occurrences of cancer in his thyroid and salivary glands. In 2006, he had a cancerous portion of his lower jawbone removed and right before he left the hospital to return home, his carotid artery burst, perhaps because the artery wall had been weakened by Ebert’s radiation treatments. Ebert narrowly avoided death, but he lost his entire jawbone in the treatment that immediately followed, and could no longer eat, drink or speak.
It was then that Ebert shifted his efforts entirely to his newspaper and online writing, and became remarkably productive. 2011 was his most prolific year, publishing some 290 film reviews, publishing two books and winning several professional awards. On Tuesday, April 2, 2013, Ebert wrote that his cancer had returned once again, and that he would be scaling back his work output as he underwent further medical treatment and focused on launching a new website. Two days later, he was dead.
The public reaction to Ebert’s passing was one of nearly unanimous sorrow (“nearly” because those who found themselves on the receiving end of one of Ebert’s infamously stinging negative reviews could be known to hold deep grudges over it). He was regarded by many to be the most influential film critic of his time, whose relentless enthusiasm for cinema not only inspired generations of his readers and viewers to hold their own movie-watching to a higher standard, but inspired movie-makers themselves to perform to a higher standard, too. Along the way, and especially as Ebert became a powerful blogger, his frequent articles on topics outside of the movies made him an influential social commentator and pundit.
The remarkable thing about Roger Ebert wasn’t that he was a passionate and gifted writer who used his skills and energy to create an incredibly successful career. It isn’t that he was a firm believer (and practitioner) in the simple philosophy that one’s meaning in life is simply to bring happiness to oneself and to others. And it isn’t even that as he got older and as his health problems compounded he somehow became even more prolific and lucid in his work.
No, the amazing thing about Roger Ebert was how calmly and cooly he regarded mortality. He never formally made his feelings about spirituality and the afterlife publicly known, not wanting his views to be distilled down to a single descriptive term. But from his writing, one could sense that he did not view death as something of which to be afraid. We were not afraid before we were born, we should not be afraid after we live, he had said. Such talk is easy when young and healthy. But after health battles that very nearly killed him, Ebert saw his life and his life’s meaning with a clarity few ever achieve. And that is worthy of a thumbs up, indeed. See you at the movies, Roger.