Feature

Roger Ebert, 1942–2013

The critic who gave cinema a big thumbs-up

Roger Ebert could determine a movie’s fortunes with a thumbs-up or -down, but he liked to expand on his judgments with mordant wit. “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out,” he wrote of Armageddon, for instance. Ebert never lost his love for cinema in 46 years of reviewing, and once said he imagined an afterlife featuring “Citizen Kane and vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream.” 

Ebert embraced journalism in childhood, said the Chicago Sun-Times, publishing a neighborhood newspaper from his parents’ basement. He edited newspapers in high school and at the University of Illinois before being offered a part-time job in 1966 at the Sun-Times; a year later he was named the newspaper’s film critic. Movie criticism had, until then, been a “backwater of journalism,” but Ebert’s appointment coincided with a “period of unprecedented creativity” in American cinema. 

Despite a brief hiatus in 1970 to write the screenplay for notoriously breast-obsessed director Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Ebert secured a reputation as a serious critic, said the Los Angeles Times. In 1975, he became the first movie reviewer to win a Pulitzer Prize; the same year, Chicago TV executives had the idea to put him and his “fierce archrival” Gene Siskel together on public TV. By 1978, the bickering duo’s show was the highest-rated in the history of public broadcasting. Even after Disney bought it in 1986, said The New York Times, the show’s format never changed: five films, each introduced with a clip, reviewed in a flurry of “knitted brows, are-you-serious head-shaking, and gentle (or not) barbs.” Then, the conclusion, “harking back to the Roman Colosseum”: thumbs-up or -down. The show continued until 1999, when Siskel died of a brain tumor. In 2006, Ebert left the air after he got cancer, too. 

Cancer cost Ebert his lower jaw and his ability to speak, said Slate.com, but never silenced him. He became a “prolific blogger, tireless tweeter, and link-finder extraordinaire,” building a whole new audience of online fans. Until the end, he reviewed movies—306 in the last year—while writing about art, love, friendship, and, above all, life. “We are put on this planet only once,” he wrote, “and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds.”

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