Legendary film critic Roger Ebert diesRoger Ebert, a Chicago movie critic whose TV show with rival Gene Siskel made him one of the most widely recognized and influential voices in film, died April 4 at a rehabilitation facility in Chicago. He was 70.
By: Emma Brown, Washington Post
Roger Ebert, a Chicago movie critic whose TV show with rival Gene Siskel made him one of the most widely recognized and influential voices in film, died April 4 at a rehabilitation facility in Chicago. He was 70.
He battled cancer on and off since 2002, when he had surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his thyroid and salivary glands. He had announced on his blog Wednesday that he was undergoing radiation treatment after a recurrence of cancer. His longtime newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, reported his death.
During his 46-year tenure at the Sun-Times, Ebert penned thousands of reviews examining every genre of film, from French avant-garde to Hollywood blockbuster, and in 1975 he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. But it was through bickering about movies onscreen with Chicago Tribune film critic Siskel that Ebert revolutionized film criticism, pulling it off the page and into living rooms across the country.
“He legitimized the idea of talking about movies, of discussing and debating the merits of movies,” said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “I’m sure many people who never read a film review in a newspaper or magazine got their first taste of film criticism from watching Roger and Gene Siskel on their television show.”
The two journalists, fierce competitors at their day jobs, were unlikely stars. But they were accessible and entertaining, forgoing both celebrity flash and brain-busting film theory in favor of simplicity: two guys sitting in the balcony of a fake theater, talking about summer blockbusters and indie films with a passion that occasionally spilled over into personal insults.
“We were very close and friendly,” Ebert once said of his relationship with his fellow critic. “Except when we were fighting.”
As the show grew from local public television to national commercial syndication, morphing from “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You” to “Sneak Previews” to “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies,” the pair became more famous than many of the actors whose films they reviewed.
By 1986, the show reached more than 10 million people across the country. The pair’s opinions could determine the fate of a movie, lifting some to box office success — the 1994 basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams,” for example, a low-budget effort that Ebert counted among the finest films in history — and dooming others.
“Siskel and Ebert go, ‘Horrible picture,’ and I’m telling you, (they) can definitely kill a movie,” actor Eddie Murphy said in 1987.
They rendered their film verdicts in thumbs: two thumbs up, an endorsement that studios splashed on movie posters in screaming fonts; two thumbs down, a universally dreaded condemnation.
“I liked it better before we had the thumbs,” Ebert told Playboy magazine. “Then, at least, you were allowed to have an opinion, like, ‘I enjoyed this movie,’ or ‘a hilarious film.’ I’d like to be able to give a sideways thumb occasionally.”
With his fame, Ebert launched a movie-reviewing franchise. He lectured widely, taught classes at the University of Chicago and wrote more than 15 books, including a novel, a cookbook and an annual anthology of reviews. In 2005, his name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Ebert lived as a bachelor until 1989, when he met Chaz Hammel-Smith (later shortened to Hammelsmith), a Chicago lawyer, through friends. They married on Ebert’s birthday in 1992. “There’s a British beer that has an ad I used to look at in the subway in London,” he said later. “It said, ‘Refreshes the parts that others do not reach.’ And that was Chaz.”
She survives, along with a stepdaughter and two grandchildren, according to the Sun-Times.
When Siskel died in 1999 from a brain tumor, Ebert continued hosting the weekly TV show — first with guests, then with fellow Sun-Times writer Richard Roeper. Ebert left the show in 2006, when he lost his voice after surgery to remove part of his jaw, where cancer had surfaced for the third time since 2002.
He had a tracheostomy and spent long stretches in the hospital but continued to make appearances when his health allowed.
Ebert communicated in his last years through his wife; with the aid of a computerized voice; and by writing in a notebook or on a slate he carried with him. He also spoke on the Internet, where in 2008 he began keeping a personal blog alongside a digital database of his reviews, opining on matters political, personal and professional.
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