For anyone who grew up in the late ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s watching Roger Ebert spar on television with his partner-in-thumbship, Gene Siskel, the rudely boisterous and antic sound of two grown men not just talking about movies but arguing about them came to seem as essential a part of the American movie landscape as popcorn or starships. If you’re a movie buff, it’s hard to imagine that both these men are gone now; their shows, and our memories of them, remain so alive. Back when Ebert and Siskel were major TV stars, I was often asked, especially if I was talking to a class of high school or college students, what I thought of their show — I always dug it — and also what I thought of the whole thumbs-up/thumbs down system. On that score, I confessed, I was more ambivalent. It was a useful system, to be sure; it was catchy and fun and, in its way, defining. But I had a few problems with it (which I’ll get to in a bit).
At that point, I’d often say something about how movie criticism, as it evolved over the last quarter of the 20th century, might make use of thumbs, or stars, or grades, or pineapples, but what criticism was really about wasn’t any of those things, or even the opinions they symbolized. True criticism was about capturing, and savoring, the experience of a movie; it was about evoking what made that movie special, or not so special; of nailing down what that movie was. That was criticism on the most exciting level. It wasn’t about opinion so much as it was about voice. The grand irony of Roger Ebert’s career is that he became an icon of the thumb, of bite-sized opinions presented as a consumer service, yet on the essential matter of voice, you couldn’t find a critic who spoke (or wrote) more urgently, more eloquently, more passionately, or with a more fascinating thrust of personality. Ebert, who I got to know casually over the decades (he was always as friendly as could be), was a forceful and generous man (he had a rock-steady gaze) and a superb writer, but he was also as natural a movie critic as there ever was. Such was his turn of mind that you had a craving to know what he thought, period. Even when you disagreed, his most casual pronouncements gave you something major to reckon with. That, among other things, is why he was loved.
Part of Roger’s casual command was the effortless way that he abolished any (false) distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. It’s not that he didn’t know the difference. It’s that he had no snobbery and, at the same time, was too sophisticated to think that the difference mattered nearly as much as a lot of people pretended it did. Pauline Kael, likewise, was celebrated for breaking down the stodgy boundaries between “art” and “pop,” but Ebert did it by being an avid bookworm and art-film intellectual who never forget his daily-newspaper moxie or his early years penning precociously trashy screenplays for Russ Meyer. He knew, from the inside, that movies — all movies — were a game, and it allowed him to treat each and every one of them with the same bold eagerness.
So why didn’t I like the thumbs? It may seem a mildly thorny issue, given the grading system here at EW, but it’s hugely relevant when talking about Roger Ebert’s legacy. It has always been my feeling that a great many movies leave people in the audience neither exhilarated nor disappointed but with the equivalent of a shrug. And the thumb system didn’t allow for that. Basically, you had to say: I liked it — or didn’t like it. And since Roger, like Gene, was a deeply generous critic who understood how hard it was to make any movie, there was a built-in temptation for him to look at a film that had some virtue to it and not just toss it onto the thumbs-down pile. But that, of course, meant that it had to get a thumbs up. Which meant, in effect, that in many years’ worth of Sneak Previews, At the Moves, and so on, a lot of mediocre movies received official recommendations, even when Roger and Gene probably knew that those films weren’t all that good.
Yet what a fantastic show it was! Not just a movie-review show but a joyfully cantankerous sitcom soap opera about an odd-couple-as-film-geek “marriage.” Every day on the Internet, people fight about movies, pitting one passion against another, yet for all the opinionizing and debate, there is often very little tolerance for the notion that people out there might actually disagree with you. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel could be brusque with one another, but they listened to each other’s arguments, shot them down or acknowledged when they were good, and never let their disagreements get in the way of their dialogue. The whole spirit of their debates was democracy in art in action. They could argue about anything, too. In the early ’90s, I was at an advertising conference in San Diego along with the two of them, and I couldn’t help but stare, from about three tables over in a hotel restaurant, as they got testy (while Roger’s wife, the lovely Chaz, looked on) over everything from where they were sitting to what they were ordering. They just had to one-up each other. The next morning, they’d been hired at the conference to do an At the Movies-style critique of a series of TV ads, and when Gene liked one spot that Roger thought was obviously abysmal, Roger kept coming back to it throughout the program, saying, “I can’t believe you fell for that!” What I heard, just beneath the impatience, was Ebert’s deep affection for Siskel, whom he viewed, in disagreement, as the prodigal brother he was out to save.
Not all great writers are great talkers, but Roger Ebert was, and he never failed to astonish me with his off-the-cuff critical eloquence. His writing, from all accounts, was literally effortless. He just poured it out, as fast as he could, and if that was partly his newspaper training, it was also his temperament: He believed, deeply, in the unruly first draft of life. Roger’s books are compulsively readable, because you always feel like he’s talking directly to you, and you get addicted to the effortless authority of that voice.
The voice continued, of course, even when he could no longer speak, and I think that most of us watched his battle with cancer feeling an empathy mixed with profound awe. To say that he fought illness in a way that was fearless is not, perhaps, to say anything that special; thousands fight disease every day with bravery. But Roger Ebert had such a love of life that even as cancer robbed him of his voice, and of the softly handsome face that we’d come to know, he insisted on treating cancer not as a challenge but as an opportunity. He would allow — no, invite — this disease to make him better. And it did. Forced out of the televised form of movie criticism that he had created, and had made the most influential of its time, he became more of a writer than ever, pouring his being onto the pages. And in doing so, he found a new communion with his audience. His total lack of vanity and self-pity, and his embrace of the life that had been left to him, were staggeringly heroic. In showing us what a public figure was when he lost his public image, he seemed to be redefining celebrity by wearing his soul on the outside.
Roger Ebert was a great movie critic, but you could still argue that he spearheaded the evolution of film criticism from something rich and deep to something showy and superficial. At least, you could make that case if you thought that that had actually happened. But when I look around, I see a thriving movie-fan culture — one that Roger Ebert helped to spawn — that is swimming in passionate and searching criticism. He is certainly the most influential critic of his time, and if you look, simply, at the short-burst form of his various TV series, you could certainly argue that the influence wasn’t all good. Even a number of Ebert’s admirers make the case for him as a critic by focusing on his writing, which was beautiful and long-form and deep. But as someone who utterly admired his writing, I still see Roger’s ultimate legacy in our culture as what he did on television. And though it may in fact have helped to give rise to bite-sized criticism, what it was, in itself, at its very best, had the fervor and the witty sting, the movie love and the audacity, that criticism is, and always should be, about. He made us realize that talking about movies is, in fact, a part of watching them. Here’s listening to you, Roger.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman