Like many other film critics of all ages, creeds and genders, I owe an enormous debt to Roger Ebert, one that cannot be paid back in a written appreciation like this. But Roger always struck me as someone who remained humble and never felt like he was owed anything. He received his fair share of deserved praise and awards, but gave so much more back.
His first and foremost gift was his writing, which won him a Pulitzer Prize back in 1975, the same year he began Sneak Previews. Three years later, his only true peer Gene Siskel, became his co-host, creating the trademark Two Thumbs Up. I was still too young to really appreciate just how special their relationship was when Gene passed away from a brain tumor in 1999. But having seen countless reviews in the years since, it’s clear there will never be a duo quite like them.
In 2000, Richard Roeper took over as co-host. This was the era I fell in love with film criticism, despite the show ever being nearly as deep and witty as it was during Gene’s tenure. When Roger had to take time off more and more frequently for cancer treatment and recovery, it felt as scary as when a family member falls ill, because whether he knew it or not, Roger was family, not just to me, but to thousands of other critics who wouldn’t be here today without his influence.
Even so, it felt like Ebert was being disrespected. Here in Dallas, his show kept shifting from its mainstay at 11:35 Saturday nights to some netherworld somewhere around 3:45 Sunday morning. Before the advent of the DVR, my dad would tape the show based on what was printed in the TV listings, adding a 30-minute buffer to either side in hopes we hadn’t missed or it wasn’t pre-empted for an infomercial for the Showtime Rotisserie.
At the same time, I began to read his writing voraciously. This was long before we had reliable internet access in our home, so I would take frequent trips to the library to read whatever I could get my hands on, including, as most people discovered his writing, his Movie Yearbook series. But these condensed reviews were not enough. I had to read more, more, more.
I don’t know when it happened, but some time in high school it dawned on me that I wanted to be Roger. I wanted to be a film critic. I knew a passion for film wasn’t enough, so I started taking journalism courses and eventually decided upon that noble field to be my major in college. While I started writing my own reviews, Ebert had lost his speaking voice, and eventually his show. Buena Vista decided to go for a younger audience, and replaced Roeper and his guest critics with Ben Mankiewicz, a film historian and weekend anchor of Turner Classic Movies, and Ben Lyons, who once called I Am Legend “one of the greatest films ever made” but didn’t put it on his list of the year’s 10 best movies. That’s like the most brilliant professor being replaced at his post by the smart-alecky student who always showed up late and then got a note from his dad saying that you couldn’t fail him.
Eventually, the Bens were replaced themselves by A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune. While this brought back some semblance of a friendly rivalry, as opposed to one critic barely masking his contempt for the other, it just wasn’t the same, mainly because Scott and Phillips both occupied a more elite sensibility and worked far better as writers than on-air personalities.
During this time, Roger turned his website into the greatest hub of film criticism the web has ever seen. Returning from multiple surgeries with renewed passion, he churned out hundreds of quality reviews every year and added foreign correspondents to his fold, giving international writers a new platform. But most importantly, he added a blog upon which he wrote about anything that excited his curious mind, whether it was politics, the afterlife or the joy of using his rice cooker.
I always found it interesting that Roger was an agnostic, as to a Christian like me it was clear that God’s hand was on him, even if he didn’t realize it. Nowhere was that more apparent than in 2006 when he was supposed to leave the hospital, but wanted to stay to listen to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.” It’s a good thing he did, because upon its completion, an artery burst and if weren’t still in that hospital room, he wouldn’t have been saved. We were spared his early departure thanks to one of Roger’s other great loves: music.
But there was nothing Roger loved more than his wife Chaz. A late marriage, Roger didn’t join his life with Chaz until he was nearly 50 years old. But anyone who had the joy of seeing them together knew they had the kind of fierce love that seems so rare among celebrities. In 2012 he wrote this:
“She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading.”
That’s the kind of mind-blowing line only Roger could write and makes you feel nearly inadequate in comparison. Not because Roger was showing off, but because this was just how well he usually wrote.
Roger passed away on April 4 in something of a shock. He had just announced he was stepping back to undergo treatment for a recurrence of cancer, but that he wasn’t going anywhere. Just as with my own grandfather—who also loved movies—he had seemed to being doing a little better, but the next day he was gone. And just as with my own grandfather, this loss stings.
It seems fitting that Roger’s final review was of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, because that’s where he was headed: out there, the unknown. What is not unknown is what he leaves behind: a legacy of incredible writing and influence, which have created generations of new critics. More than that, he has developed what I believe no other critic has or will: He has more than followers, admirers, devotees or fans. He is set apart amongst critics because people actually love him.
Roger Ebert was my hero, and I will miss him dearly.