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For Influential Critic Roger Ebert, Life Spent ‘At the Movies’ Ends at Age 70

April 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Prolific film critic Roger Ebert famously decided a movie's fate with the turn of his thumb. After a long and physically debilitating battle with cancer, Ebert died at age 70. Hari Sreenivasan talks more about Ebert and his impact on the film industry with David Edelstein, film critic for New York Magazine and NPR's Fresh Air.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, remembering the popular movie reviewer and television co-host Roger Ebert. He was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize.

He died today at age 70.

Hari is back with our remembrance.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ebert was the longtime film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times and was syndicated to more than 200 newspapers. He also became well known for co-hosting a weekly show with fellow critic Gene Siskel. And, in 2005, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and spoke about his love for the movies.

ROGER EBERT, Film Critic: Movies are the most powerful empathy machine of all the arts.

When I go to a great movie, I can live somebody else’s life a little bit for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ebert began a long battle with cancer in 2002. By 2006, he lost the ability to eat, speak and drink after surgeries for thyroid and salivary gland cancer. He continued to review and write about the movies and his own illness on his blog and on social media, where he reached a robust new audience.

On Tuesday, he announced on his blog that his cancer had returned.

For more, we’re joined by David Edelstein. He’s the film critic for New York Magazine and for NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

Thanks for being with us.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, New York Magazine/ “Fresh Air”: My pleasure on this sad occasion.


So, why was Roger Ebert’s voice so large in the film industry?

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Well, it’s a funny thing.

Most of us don’t remember that, in Ebert’s early days, he was a bit of a hell-raiser and a partier, went to the Playboy Mansion, drank a lot. He wrote about all this. But when he sobered up, he decided, I think, that he was going to be a public figure.

Now, most film critics are kind of private, twisted loners, myself included. But Roger almost styled himself an ambassador of the movies and a sort of mayor of movie criticville.

And when he got this show, when he started the show, he was able to, I think, frame certain discussions about the movies, frame his own responses in a way that become enormously appealing to great numbers of people, people who maybe thought of film critics as kind of Rex Reed types who would come on talk shows and drop insults and give their opinions.

Roger had this great gift for being able to speak in whole paragraphs. He knew from his topic sentence what his conclusion was going to be. And he was going to pull you into that, whether you were an elitist pointy head or just a guy wanting to be entertained. He could communicate with you what the joy of movies really was.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He started writing in ’67. He won his Pulitzer in, what, ’75.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Hasn’t been on TV in a half-dozen years, but here’s a guy who has got more than 800,000 followers on Twitter. How did he transcend these generations?

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Well, it’s an amazing thing.

When he first started on TV, remember, he wasn’t universally loved. He and Gene Siskel were people — a lot of people tuned in just to see them bicker, because it was said that they kind of didn’t like each other off-camera. And people referred to them derisively as the fat guy and the other one.

But, slowly, as people grew up with Roger, as new fans came of age, he in part — also because of his Pulitzer — managed to acquire a lot of authority, and to make film criticism serious on television, which it really hadn’t been at that point.

Then, what was absolutely stunning was that his greatest gift was his voice, his ability to speak extemporaneously. When he lost that, he went and he reinvented himself. He turned himself into this amazing blogger, more passionate than ever, someone whose voice was infectious and who every day set an example for all of us in what to do when — you know, when life gives you a lemon.

I think he wrote 1,000 times better after he lost his voice than he did before. In some ways — in some ways, I mean, as terrible as, of course, it was, it was a blessing for him as a writer and a thinker that he could lay out his philosophy of life, his aesthetic and his politics in a way that he never had before.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what is it about that show that made it so successful? The two of them co-hosted it together for almost, what, 23, 24 years.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Well, a lot of critics went on TV and talked and were not really challenged by anybody.

But they were very, very different people. You had Siskel, who was very prickly and scattershot and really, really kind of moody and not that much of an intellectual, and Roger, who was — who managed to be very, very centered and to kind of keep the discussion on track.

And they taught us not just how to think about movies, which I think we knew how to do, but how to talk about them, so that we didn’t just sit there and say, well, I liked it. Well, I liked it, too. Let’s give it a yes.

They actually engaged with each other. They thought. They aired different world views, different personalities, different temperaments. And I think they created a template for a lot of shows that followed, none of them anywhere near as good as the original “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Did getting a thumbs up or thumbs down actually have a measurable difference on a movie?

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Oh, sure it did.

I mean, look, the phrase two thumbs up has passed into the lexicon. There are people still nowadays who say, I give it two thumbs up, even if it’s their own thumbs. Yes, you know, it was — Roger often lamented that, you know, quote ads were all reduced to silly superlatives and adjectives.

And I once reminded him, to his great irritation, that as much as he wanted to see more intelligent quote ads, a lot of it these days was two big thumbs.

On the other hand, if you could win over Ebert and Siskel, you knew that there was going to be an audience.

Ebert — you see, Ebert didn’t think just about his own responses. And he didn’t think about the history of cinema. I mean, he did, but first and foremost, he thought about you, the viewer at home. You know, what are you going to make of this? What is everybody going to make? What can we learn from this? How can we support this filmmaker or that filmmaker? It’s really an inspiring legacy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I mean, it seems even Facebook stole the thumbs up for the like button, right?

I want to ask …

DAVID EDELSTEIN: He copyrighted it, though. He did copyright it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Did he really?

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Yes, he did. Oh, yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, I want to ask, what are you going to remember about him as a peer? Because I’m sure there’s hundreds of movies that the two of you disagreed on. But when you read his work and compared it to your own, what is going to leap out at you?

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Well, I think the funny is, you know, Roger never really represented a certain aesthetic.

He wasn’t — his writing wasn’t transformative, the way someone like Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael was, people whose aesthetic we still argue about. As I said, what I remember about Roger was that public persona, that public dimension.

He reminded us that movies weren’t just some private thing that we sat in the dark and were sort of bathed, bathed in the light of the screen, that they were — that each and every one of us, our own responses, you know, were — were a starting point for a larger debate, a larger cultural debate. What does this mean? What is this artist trying to do? How can movies transform all of our lives, teach us what it is to transcend our mundane reality?

That’s what inspires me most about his legacy, not just even so much any individual things he wrote, although he was a fine writer. He was a lucid writer. It was the — it was that — it was that public dimension to what he did that is hugely important.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Edelstein, thanks so much for your time.