Roger Ebert died at the age of 70 after a lengthy battle with cancer and just a few days after announcing he was going to take what he referred to as “A Leave of Presence,” which would allow him to “do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review” as well as work on other projects. On the eve of the 46th anniversary when he became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, he assured readers ” I am not going away,” only to have fate prove him wrong the day after the anniversary.
In 1975, the same year Ebert won the Pulitizer Prize for film criticism, a fact that he would slip into his arguments on occassion, he and his crosstown rival, Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, began their television partnership of nearly 25 years and became as synonymous with the movies as any pair who graced the silver screen, from Laurel and Hardy to C-3PO and R2-D2. They took film criticism from the elites and gave it to the masses as they articulated their arguments, which they would sum up at the end of each show with an iconic “thumbs up/thumbs down”.
Living in Southern California. I was first introduced to them and their pal Spot the Wonder Dog on the PBS series Sneak Previews, which was nationally syndicated out of Chicago in 1978. Each week, they would discuss the latest releases. But what really made the show exciting was their arguments. The two verbally sparred like brothers, which meant digs and insults would be unleashed if they went on long enough.
They moved on in 1982 to the syndicated At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, which was rebranded in 1986 under new ownership as Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, but regardless of the title, the format was the same as was the level of enjoyment the two provided. While my tastes were closer to Siskel than Ebert, I appreciated Ebert’s ability to make his reasons for his opinions clearly understood, in spoken word and in print, even though I remain baffled how he could give David Lynch’s Blue Velvet “one star” and then call Mulholland Dr. one of the “Great Movies.”
In 1999, their partnership came to an end when Siskel died of surgical complications related to a cancerous brain tumor. Ebert continued the show with numerous guests until September 2000 when Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper became the permanent co-host. But it was never the same without Siskel, and I’m not the only one who felt that way.
In 2002, it was the beginning of the end as Ebert began receiving treatment for papillary thyroid cancer. In 2006, surgery would take from him the ability to speak and also to eat or drink. Almost every update about his health over the remaining years seemed to be for the worse, yet his spirit remained high as seen in his writing no matter if it was about politics, his illness, or, to no surprise, movies, which he continued to champion. Chaz Ebert, Roger’s wife of over 20 years, reported about his death: “We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition.”
Roger Ebert offers a valuable lesson. He followed his bliss and not only brought great joy into his own life, but into the many others who enjoyed his work. He’s earned a big thumbs-up from me.