The sad news that the best-known film critic in America, Roger Ebert, has passed away at age 70 after a long battle with cancer, was the first news items I heard this morning. Despite no personal connection to the man this news cast a pall over the day.
For those of you who regularly read this blog you will know that I freely and frequently quote from Ebert’s reviews (with due credit). I have always found them intelligent and thoughtfully written; his ideas often gelling with the ideas not yet fully formed in my brain, and always beautifully expressed. Reading an Ebert review you always have a strong sense of what moved him and that when he watched film it was always with a sense of wonder and delight. As he wrote in Slate’s Movie Club in 2001, ‘I look to books for facts and to movies for feelings.’ This is a sentiment I share. The movies that get your heart and gut first are the movies that stay with you forever.
Film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death, Ebert was loved not only by film buffs but those in the filmmaking community too, screenwriters and directors in particular, who appreciated how he championed their careers and respected his vast knowledge of cinema history.
Ebert was famous for giving films the ‘two thumbs up’ on various television programs with fellow critic Gene Siskel (who passed away in 1999). In 2006, after post-surgical complications related to his thyroid cancer, Ebert was left unable to speak. Focusing more on his writing, Ebert gained a sizeable online following, including me.
Above all, Ebert was an exceptional writer. For this gift he was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975 – the first film critic to win the award. His reviews were much more than simple thumbs up or down – they were an expression of his personal passion, a passion that never failed to connect.
I’ll finish with director Martin Scorsese’s personal response to the loss. He says it better than I ever could:
‘The death of Roger Ebert is an incalculable loss for movie culture and for film criticism. And it’s a loss for me personally. Roger was always supportive, he was always right there for me when I needed it most, when it really counted – at the very beginning, when every word of encouragement was precious; and then again, when I was at the lowest ebb of my career, there he was, just as encouraging, just as warmly supportive. There was a professional distance between us, but then I could talk to him much more freely than I could to other critics. Really, Roger was my friend. It’s that simple. Few people I’ve known in my life loved or cared as much about movies. I know that’s what kept him going in those last years – his life-or-death passion for movies, and his wonderful wife, Chaz.’