February 22, 1999
MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, remembering film critic, Gene Siskel, and to Phil Ponce.
PHIL PONCE: Gene Siskel died over the weekend at age 53 from complications stemming from surgery last year to remove a growth from his brain. So ended a 24-year television partnership.
GENE SISKEL: The name of our show is opening soon at a theater near you. Two film critics talking about the movies, and this is Roger Ebert, the film critic from the "Chicago Sun Times."
ROGER EBERT: And right over is Gene Siskel, the film critic from the "Chicago Tribune" and Channel 2 News.
GENE SISKEL: Part of our show is to sort of be a news magazine about movies.
PHIL PONCE: Chicago's public television station brought the two rival movie critics together in 1975, calling their show "Opening Soon at a Theater Near You." It eventually became "Sneak Previews," and for a time had the highest ratings in public broadcasting history.
GENE SISKEL: I found "Sunset" to be a pleasure.
ROGER EBERT: Boy, I'm totally in disagreement with you on this one.
PHIL PONCE: But it wasn't just the banter that kept viewers tuned in; sometimes it was the rancor.
ROGER EBERT: We are completely incompatible.
GENE SISKEL: He is the Pillsbury Doughboy of criticism.
PHIL PONCE: These critics from competing Chicago newspapers said that for years, they genuinely did not like each other.
ROGER EBERT: We would walk to the screenings together, walk into the screening rooms, probably side by side, go up and down in elevators, without ever exchanging a word.
GENE SISKEL: He is the one person in Chicago that I must destroy in print.
PHIL PONCE: They left PBS in 1982 and moved to commercial television with "At the Movies," and later, just "Siskel and Ebert." The format stayed the same, and they came to be known for their system of thumbs-up/thumbs-down. Eventually, they said, they wound up liking each other after all, bound perhaps by their passion for films.
GENE SISKEL: Roger and I love movies. We don't want to be in them. I don't want to write them. I don't want to direct them. I want to talk about them.
PHIL PONCE: Joining me now, Richard Schickel, film critic for "Time" magazine. Welcome, Richard. Tell me, what is it in your opinion that Gene Siskel brought to film criticism?
RICHARD SCHICKEL, Time Magazine Film Critic: Well, it's the combination. I felt that they brought movie reviewing, which was kind of hoity-toity in its print terms, down to a kind of nice vernacular level. I mean, there were a couple guys in sweaters sitting around talking about movies the way normal people talk about movies but with this additional fact, they were both extremely knowledgeable men about movies. So I think they maybe relaxed the discussion as well as broadened the discussion.
PHIL PONCE: So do you think --so you're saying they, what, made it more accessible, gave movie criticism kind of a mass appeal that it might not have had before?
RICHARD SCHICKEL: They were smart guys with a populist spin on the way they talked about movies. And that was very appealing and I think very healthy by in large.
PHIL PONCE: In 1975 in the late 70's when they started out, is this what they brought that was new, this sort of freshness, this informality that maybe hadn't existed in the mass market in ages?
RICHARD SCHICKEL: I do think that a lot of us who were in print in those days went, oh, my God, you know, it's terribly mass and it's terribly broad and all that, but I think we all absorbed them. In a certain way they became part of the critical landscape. And as things have developed in movie reviewing, you know, bad coinage has driven out good. And so they became from being these people that people had a little contempt for because they were this popular medium and talked in this popular way about movies, they became kind of bastions of light if you were to compare them to most of the reviewing that goes on on television today, their intelligence and their passion for the subject and their kind of witty badinage back and forth was really very helpful, very good.
PHIL PONCE: You mention their witty back and forth repartee, why did they work as a duo? Why do you think they seemed to click?
RICHARD SCHICKEL: Something more than being the fat guy and skinny guy -- your terms, not mine -- popular terms for them. I think Siskel was a little more the acidic type, and Roger was a little hotter. And I think it was really hot and cool -- working and working rather well together on screen.
PHIL PONCE: Richard, when I first saw them in 1978, I was living in Denver. I thought at the time when I saw them, these guys are not only really smart and really spirited but they don't seem to like each other very much. Was that part of their appeal early on, this tension between them?
RICHARD SCHICKEL: Oh, sure. I mean, gee, if you can institutionalize tension on television, you're in a very good place, aren't you? I have never had any idea as to how much of that was an act, how much of it was a genuine dislike. I'm sure, you know, it's like anybody who has been married for 25 years. You either get a divorce, or you learn to live with one another. So, I suspect from Roger's very generous comments about his colleague on his passing that they had worked out a kind of an affectionate exasperation with one another.
PHIL PONCE: You compare their relationship to a marriage. Why do you think it is they lasted so long, not just professionally as a tandem, but as far as their public appeal?
RICHARD SCHICKEL: It's funny. There have been a lot of attempts to imitate them, haven't there? And none of them have really come off. There was something unique in that - you know, it's the point at which we throw up our hands and talking about movie star appeal or any kind of star appeal. You know, there's an X factor that's hard to read, and I suspect that Gene will be a hard person to replace in that combo.
PHIL PONCE: A hard person to replace because, what, their chemistry might have been so unique to that particular combination?
RICHARD SCHICKEL: It's possible. You know, it's like Myrna Loy and William Powell or Abbott and Costello or whatever it is. There are some combinations that simply work. And I think that one did.
PHIL PONCE: Richard, how about the impact that they had on the movie industry, does any critic or a team of critics have much power to shape, to influence, to decide what movies make it, what movies might not?
RICHARD SCHICKEL: No, not really. I think most people -- for most mass appeal movies, you know, the Armageddons of the word or the "Message in the Bottle" of the world, people go to those without paying the slightest heeds to critics. I think for certain kinds of American independent film, certain kinds of foreign films, a genuine critical outpouring in their favor can kind of bring people to them. "Shakespeare in Love" might be a really good current example of that. So I don't think they had individually anymore power than those of us writing for the news magazines or the big national papers, but if you were to get us all together and feeling good about a movie, I think we can bring people into the tent. I think even though when we're all against it, we can't prevent people from seeing what they want to see. It's only -- the power is only positive in terms of box office appeal.
PHIL PONCE: Richard, along the lines of a positive box office generating of interest, a couple of movies that have been mentioned in connection with Siskel and Ebert, movies that they sort of helped give some life to, my dinner with Andres, Hoop Dreams, is that the sort of thing you're talking about, the sort of marginal movies maybe?
RICHARD SCHICKEL: Sure. In both of those case, they had plenty of support from other major critics. I think the national critics, people working for national publications, and they are really truly the one national television show devoted to movies, I think those people can have in concert, you know, quite a useful role to play. You know, "Hoop Dreams" is not the kind of movie that most people would automatically go to see. But there was a concert of good opinion about that movie. And that's the best thing we do as reviewers, you know. I mean, it's the most useful function we actually have.
PHIL PONCE: Richard Schickel, thank you very much.