It is characteristic of Roger Ebert, speechless for some years, that he should take his life departure just a day after admitting that he would have to drop down from doing 300 reviews a year. I daresay that rate of work was some compensation for not being able to talk, retort, tease, laugh, and snort. Ebert was a big man in every way who had charged through so many obstacles. The first of those was that he continued to write when beset by complicated and disfiguring cancers. Another was that he insisted on being a popular critic of a medium that sometimes seems to have lost its mainstream audience. Yet one more victory is that, with Gene Siskel, he was the only person who had made film criticism viable in this country on television. So he was famous as a TV figure, but he would tell you always that he was a newspaper man.
Then there was Siskel. It’s fair and necessary to say they did not get on, and probably sought to be contrary just to prove which one was which. They agreed on one thing: that their hostility (which is nearly the right word) was the secret of their show and the way they could spar and wisecrack like a couple of guys in a film from the ’30s.
It doesn’t really matter how good a critic Roger was—though he won the Pulitzer for his verve and enthusiasm. He was a great guy, long before the illness: When much younger he had overcome a need for alcohol. He wrote books. He used to do a one-man analysis of Citizen Kane, he had written a script that got made, by Russ Meyer, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He was a very good interviewer at film festivals. He was generous to all and sundry. He had the great Chaz, his wife, by his side. And he was the last film critic just about everyone had heard of. So let’s forgive him for thumbs-up-thumbs-down, a televisual gesture that only encouraged the idea that a film could be summed up in 2.5 seconds. Roger could write long and talk very short. He was always on schedule—even if we did not guess how close that last deadline was.