Roger and Me: A Tribute to Roger Ebert, Part 1

This article represents the first of a three-part series on the late film critic, Roger Ebert. This first piece focuses on Roger’s influence on me personally as a critic.

The second part will discuss his 2011 memoir, Life Itself, and his lasting legacy in film criticism.  The final piece will primarily be about Steve James’s new documentary, also titled Life Itself, which documents Roger’s personal and professional life. The film just had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled to be released later this year.

April 4th 2013 was a day like any other, until it suddenly wasn’t.  I was supposed to work that morning, but I was called off due to lack of business (an all too common occurrence in the restaurant industry).  I had rehearsal for a show I was recently cast in that evening, so I saddled up for a day of learning lines and studying music.  The news of Roger Ebert’s passing hit sometime early that afternoon, but I initially missed it.  Like many others, it was through social media that word reached me as countless friends sent me private messages asking if I had heard what had happened.  My world stopped right then and there.

I had just spent my morning checking my usual film news and review websites, and was always one of the first stops I made online.  Not two days earlier he had made a post on his blog explaining that he was going to be taking a “leave of presence,” allowing other trusted critics to do the bulk of the reviews on the site while he continued to write when he could.  Ebert had been in poor health for many years, fighting losing battles with thyroid, salivary gland and chin cancer, but his spirit had always been so courageous.  He refused for so long to succumb to disease and in those later years he pumped out more reviews and blog posts than possibly any other professional critic.  Roger Ebert was a man so full of life that even though he had lost his ability to eat, drink and speak due to his cancer, the thought of him dying at only 70 years of age seemed almost impossible.  And yet here it was.  The monolithic figure whose work I both envied and worshipped was gone. The shock was so great that at the time there was no emotional release for me, just a well of confused and pent-up emotions seizing my heart like a vice.  It would not be until days later that the tears I so desperately needed to shed would come.

I have four heroes in my life each pertaining to deep individual passions of mine.  For film it is Steven Spielberg, whose work is the earliest I can remember seeing as a child.  For musical theatre it is Stephen Sondheim, whose Into the Woods made me want to become an actor.  For film acting it is Gary Oldman, whose craft I have long admired and he remains my favorite actor working today.  And for film criticism it is undoubtedly Roger Ebert, whose television show Siskel and Ebert is the earliest recollection I have of encountering serious film discussion and dissection.  My father was in the military, and I grew up overseas until 1995, when we moved to San Antonio, Texas in order for my father to be close to his parents. I was ten years old. Though I knew who Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were, due to seeing various talk show appearances and their official stamp of approval on film television ads (“Two Thumbs Up!”), it wasn’t until this move back to the states that I became familiar with their program.

For whatever reason, Siskel and Ebert came on very late at night in San Antonio and I stumbled upon their program by chance.  I was a night owl as a child (and well into my teenage years), and it was quite normal for me to sneak-watch television until the wee hours of the morning.  It was at this time that I first saw the show and I was hooked immediately.  Being as young as I was I couldn’t tell you what films they were discussing in this initial episode, but I found their back and forth banter fascinating.  I also couldn’t believe that I was watching two average-looking guys on television openly disagreeing about a movie while almost simultaneously shouting over each other to have their opinion be heard.  Never in my life had film been debated among anyone in such an energetic and passionate way.  I didn’t know it then, but that one caught-by-chance episode would dramatically change the way I looked at movies forever.

What struck me most about their show was that both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had a no-nonsense attitude about reviewing movies, and while they obviously had respect for each other’s opinions, they weren’t afraid to trade verbal barbs. Sometimes they were low blows, with Siskel citing Roger’s weight and Roger returning with a quip about Siskel’s ever-receding hairline, but you couldn’t help but feel the love between them.  Oftentimes it reminded me of a sibling rivalry with both of them always trying to out-review the other, but more often than not they actually agreed on a lot of what they saw.  In those moments, I couldn’t help but smile in admiration.  There was no ifs, ands, or buts about it – more than anything, these guys loved the movies. Their love was infectious and it caused me to seek out films that neither my parents nor I would have paid much attention to before.  No longer was I only watching classic historical epics (my father’s genre of choice), Lucas and Spielberg summer popcorn extravaganzas (my siblings’ genre of choice), or testosterone-filled action-fests (my mother’s genre of choice), but instead I was discovering the works of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, John Sayles, Spike Lee, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Jim Jarmusch among many others.

My knowledge of film and its history was rapidly expanding and each week I couldn’t wait to see what my two favorite critics had to say on releases both old and new.  I always tended to side with Ebert on reviews, or at least find myself in agreement with him half of the time.  Siskel appeared unwilling to embrace the seedier side of independent cinema emerging in the 90’s, and he always seemed to bemoan the fact that many of those films lacked societal morals. Ebert judged films on their individual merits, and was willing to cite impeccable crafts work even when he found a given film’s subject matter distasteful.  He was also a champion of ambitiously difficult projects that may not have fully worked but he supported their vision, including such films as The Cell, Dark City, The Tree of Life, and, most recently, Cloud Atlas (of which I am a huge admirer).  More and more when I find myself on the opposite end of the critical spectrum on a given film I often wonder aloud, “what would Roger have thought?”

For four years I watched Siskel and Ebert and followed their ever-fluctuating broadcast timetable.  And in those four years I delighted in their natural chemistry, and their never-ending adoration of the movies and the people who made them.  It wasn’t long, though, until I began to notice Siskel’s health deteriorating.  He still did his job on the show and did it well, but he wasn’t as spry as he used to be and his reviews appeared more cautious, measured, and slightly sentimental.  When Gene Siskel passed on February 20th, 1999 it didn’t come as a shock to me, but it did leave me with a hollow feeling as if something very important was missing from my life.  A great critic had moved on — to whatever it is that comes next for us after death.  I read countless eulogies and watched Roger deliver moving words about his and Gene’s 29-year working relationship and friendship on Larry King.  The show would go on, but it would never be the same.  For months there was a revolving door of guest critics, many of whom were very good, but none had Siskel’s spark.  Eventually Richard Roeper became co-host and though he couldn’t fill Gene’s shoes, he had a young energetic goofiness that played well off of Ebert’s wise, aged television critic shtick.  I certainly kept watching right through to the final episode of the show’s various incarnations.  But there was no denying it — it was the end of an era.

Though I almost never missed an episode of Roger’s show, it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that I began to read his print reviews.  I was immediately struck by his personal style and how he poured so much of himself into every review that he wrote.  They were often in first-person viewpoint and he was always definitive in his opinion.  It’s a style that I used to try, and fail, to imitate. I know better now.  His reviews were so singular and oftentimes hysterically humorous.  Roger had natural wit, and even when he was tearing a movie to pieces I couldn’t help but chuckle at his wordplay.  The fiery TV critic translated so well to the page.  But in his later years, once he began to suffer the effects of his cancer, he also wrote with great humanity.  This came out most in his blog where he would offer up his musings on politics, religion, his own life’s philosophy, the great love of his life Chaz, and what might come after death.

It was during this time that the world got to know the real Roger Ebert and my heart went out to him.  He was a man filled with great empathy and he was a true-blue liberal, always standing up for minorities and the working class.  He believed in equal rights for all people and was never shy in condemning those who would treat others poorly.  Many of his beliefs evolved over the course of time, as it is silly to think that we all believe in one thing and then never change. His opinions in life were dictated by his experience.  Roger championed African-American filmmakers and put many of their films on the map by giving them such enthusiastic reviews, and declaring their importance in the ever-growing field of unique cultural voices on film.  These were all qualities about him that made me fall in love with Roger the human being, and not just the film critic.  And when he spoke of death it was not with fear, but with great curiosity.  I can only hope that when it is close to my time to go that I can be as eloquent and brave as Roger.

I never got to meet Roger in person, despite living in Chicago for close to nine years now.  I did, however, get to see him give a lifetime achievement award to Susan Sarandon at the opening night of the 41st Chicago International Film Festival in 2005.  It was only my second month in the city and to even be in the same auditorium with him was a thrill, though unfortunately the movie that followed his tribute to Sarandon was not (Cameron Crowe’s self-indulgent and sluggish Elizabethtown).  I went that night with freshmen college friends whose names I can now barely remember.  They didn’t really care about the movie or who Roger Ebert was, but it didn’t matter.  They were there to see a star up-close.  I was there to see Roger.  In less than a year’s time his health troubles would hit and he would begin his slow march towards death, but what gifts he gave us right up until the end!

I had heard rumblings that there would be a special tribute to Roger Ebert shortly after his death.  I scoured the internet for any information I could find, and eventually it was announced that on April 11th of 2013, just one week after his passing, there would indeed be such a tribute.  The program was titled “Roger Ebert: A Celebration of Life with Love from Chaz” and it would feature dozens of fellow critics, filmmakers, and relatives all giving poignant testimony on a life well lived.  It is one of my great regrets that I did not make it to this event, but it was not for lack of trying.  The ticket process was somewhat complicated by having to email or call in order to secure a seat. The problem was, no one ever answered and the reply back was automated.  I was told that I had RSVP’d but that seating was not guaranteed.  The 11th happened to be the same night that I had agreed to attend the opening night of the musical Oliver! out at Drury Lane theatre in the Chicago suburbs with my friend Michael.  We had planned to get together for weeks and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wouldn’t be able to go with him at such late notice, especially since I wasn’t even guaranteed to get in.  In retrospect, my head wasn’t in the right place for a musical that night to begin with, and though I enjoyed spending time with my friend, part of me wishes I had at least attempted to get into Roger’s tribute.

Thankfully, “A Celebration of Life” was recorded and I was able to see the tribute online after all — and what a celebration it was.  The tears that I couldn’t find to grieve over one of my greatest heroes finally came, and by the time the gospel choirs sang (the Soul Children of Chicago and the Fellowship Chicago Choir), they never stopped flowing.  To this day whenever I read or see anything about Roger Ebert I can’t help but be overcome with emotion.  Though I never met him, and only knew him through his writing, he left an everlasting impression on me.  I owe him so much, not least of which is my undying passion for the movies.  It is because of him that I could ever dare to dream of becoming a critic.

Though he is gone, his work lives on through his website which is run by a dedicated team including his wife Chaz.  For a while I criticized the site after his death complaining that there was no unified voice among the many critics who now write for him, but I suspect Roger would have wanted it that way.  In fact, he would just be happy to know that his love for the movies lives on even in death, and that he continues to inspire a brand new generation of film critics, myself included.  Thank you for everything, Roger.

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