Roger Ebert’s battle with throat cancer has been an unattended background story for many years. News that the disease cost him his jaw and the ability to speak emerged far less subtly though. This month’s Esquire magazine features an up-close photo of the famed film critic, jawless and almost unrecognizable; his face poking up from a black turtleneck. It’s shocking at the very least. But it’s consistent too. Ebert is a brave guy. We know this from his decades-long career critiquing Hollywood’s erratic output. If a film falls short, he will explain in wonderful detail why and to what extent. Indeed, this tendency for brutal honestly only makes his enthusiastic comments seem that much more relevant. In many ways, Roger Ebert set the stage for the likes of Simon Cowell decades before American Idol turned the archetype of harsh critic into the caricature that it is today.
Beyond any measure of celebrity, Ebert has proven his mettle in a field littered with fluff. He is a profoundly insightful critic–critic in the scholarly sense, not the kind who slurps jumbo Cokes while watching teenagers warble into microphones. In a few well-written paragraphs, he can extract the essence of a film in ways most of us completely overlook. Even when you disagree with his overriding sentiment, you have to admire the dazzling word play in his arguments. And the output: week-after-week, this potent analysis of the popcorn cinema continues to flow out like so many fountain drinks. If you want a definitive Ebert gem, read his analysis of the 1997 classic Dark City, or better yet, watch the commentary track on the DVD. Hearing that completely transformed my perception of the Noir classic (and of him).
Ebert won a Pulitzer in 1975, but he also wrote the screenplay for the scandalous cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This fascinating background set the stage for what would follow. From his home office in Chicago, he and Gene Siskel transformed the previously unremarkable field of film criticism into a metric of tremendous influence. Their popular weekly serial Siskel & Ebert was a precursor to reality television. Here, two shlumpy newspaper men gassed their opinions to a world eager to listen; this despite their endless interstitial bickering–Oh, the bickering! Soon the orientation of their thumbs became a predictor of a movie’s future performance, not to mention guaranteed header placement for all subsequent ad campaigns. Ebert has carried this forward to become the most feared commentator in all of Hollywood.
And so I see this image and try to square it with my memories of the same man in a younger, gruffer form. I can only think “hero.” I wish him many years of health (and volumes of volcanic criticism to boot).
February 20th, 2010
April 4th, 2013: RIP Ebert. You were the best of the best. I will miss you.