Roger Ebert, the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize and longtime co-host of the Emmy-nominated program At the Movies, has passed away after a long battle with cancer. Marlow Stern on one of cinema’s greatest lovers.
The Great Appreciator has left us.
Roger Ebert passed away on Thursday after a long battle with cancer, according to a family friend. He was 70. The celebrated film lover and historian died exactly 46 years and one day after being named the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times—a post he held until his last breath.
After a trying bout with thyroid cancer, and the post-surgical complications that stole his ability to speak, Ebert announced Tuesday evening that he was taking “a leave of presence” from film criticism due to a recurrence of cancer, he wrote poignantly on his blog.
“The immediate reason for my ‘leave of presence’ is my health,” he wrote. “The ‘painful fracture’ that made it difficult for me to walk has recently been revealed to be a cancer. It is being treated with radiation, which has made it impossible for me to attend as many movies as I used to. I have been watching more of them on screener copies that the studios have been kind enough to send to me.”
Arguably the greatest movie buff in history, in 1975 Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He brought film criticism into the mainstream with his movie-review television programs Sneak Previews, At the Movies With Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and Siskel and Ebert at the Movies, which he co-hosted with his partner-in-cinema, Gene Siskel, over a period of 23 years. The programs were nominated for several Emmy Awards and introduced the classic “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” critical technique. When viewers opened their morning papers and saw two thumbs up!, you got your ass to that movie. After Siskel’s death in 1999, Ebert continued hosting his syndicated movie-centric talk show until losing his voice to cancer in 2008.
In addition to averaging 200 movie reviews a year, which were syndicated in more than 200 U.S. newspapers, he also managed to write 15 books, contribute to various magazines (including Newsweek) and serve as a popular teacher and lecturer at the University of Chicago. And since 1999, he hosted the Roger Ebert Film Festival in Champaign, Illinois, home to the University of Illinois.
Roger Joseph Ebert was born in Urbana, Illinois, on June 18, 1942, the only child of Walter, an electrician, and Annabel, a bookkeeper. He began his writing career as a young teenager sending editorial notes to science-fiction fanzines like Xero, and later on in high school served as a sportswriter for The News-Gazette in Champaign, followed by a stint as co-editor of the Urbana High School newspaper, The Echo.
After graduating high school, Ebert enrolled at the University of Illinois and worked as a reporter for the campus paper, The Daily Illini. Around this time, Ebert became interested in film criticism and wrote one of his first film reviews—of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita—that ran in the Illini in 1961.
“I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad magazine,” wrote Ebert. “Mad’s parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin—of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas.”
Ebert graduated from the University of Illinois in 1964, and then enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. In order to help pay his way through school, Ebert wrote some freelance pieces before eventually landing a job in 1966 as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. When the paper’s film critic, Eleanor Keane, left the following year, Ebert got the job. His first day was April 3, 1967, and he eventually left graduate school to assume his film writing duties full time.
During the 1970s, Ebert co-wrote the screenplays to several soft-core films, including Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—which is now regarded as a bizarre cult classic—Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, and Up! He also wrote the screenplay for a film about the punk-rock band the Sex Pistols called Who Killed Bambi? That film was never made.
Ebert was celebrated for the sardonic wit and democratic writing style he employed in his reviews. When Ebert loved a film, he loved hard, and when he hated one, he hated hard.
One of his most notorious reviews was his mega-pan of Rob Reiner’s 1994 comedy North:
“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
Other films he wasn’t a fan of included Dirty Harry (“fascist”); Blue Velvet (“sophomoric”); and Die Hard (“wrongheaded”). He rarely pulled punches. And when reviewing films, Ebert would always use his theory of relativism—that films should be reviewed by what he believes its prospective audience wants.
Ebert’s personal top-10 films of all time, a list that he contributed to the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors’ poll, included 2001: A Space Odyssey; Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Apocalypse Now; Citizen Kane; La Dolce Vita; The General; Raging Bull; Tokyo Story; The Tree of Life; and Vertigo.
Despite losing his speech in 2008, Ebert could not be silenced. He was very active on Twitter, broadcasting his views on everything from films to politics—he’s a longtime Democrat and Obama supporter—to his 838,000-plus followers.
And 2012, his last full year as a film critic, was his most prolific yet—despite his health problems.
“Last year, I wrote the most of my career, including 306 movie reviews, a blog post or two a week, and assorted other articles,” he wrote on his blog on April 2. “I must slow down which is why I’m taking what I like to call ‘a leave of presence.’”
Ebert leaves behind his wife, Chaz Ebert, a former trial attorney who was there for her husband until the end. And his legacy will hopefully endure on the silver screen. Celebrated documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams), along with Steve Zaillian (writer of Schindler’s List) and Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese were collaborating on a documentary about Ebert’s life up until the day he passed.
“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me,” Ebert last wrote. “I’ll see you at the movies.”