Roger Ebert died

The beloved Chicago film critic Roger Ebert died today at the age of 70 after struggling with cancer for over a decade.  He was a lovely man (according to my nephew, who met him) and an astute critic.  The announcement at the Chicago Tribune (though Ebert worked for the Sun-Times) includes this:

Prolific almost to the point of disbelief — the Weekend section of the Sun-Times often featured as many as nine on some days — Ebert was arguably the most powerful movie critic in the history of that art form. He was also the author of 15 books, a contributor to various magazines, author of the liveliest of bloggers and an inspiring teacher and lecturer at the University of Chicago.

. . . . His reviews, from the start and ever since, were at once artful and accessible. In 1975 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first such criticism prize to be awarded for film criticism by the Pulitzers.

Damn! I didn’t know he taught a course here, and I never saw him lecture, though I did see him interview Woody Allen live onstage at a premiere of “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” at the Univerity of Chicago student moviehouse. It is a small venue and I was immensely privileged to see these two smart and funny guys have a relaxed conversation just a few rows away.

I’m not sure about the “most powerful” thing—Pauline Kael could certainly give him a run for the money—but he was hugely influential. His television show “Sneak Previews” with Gene Siskel (who also died of cancer, in 1999 at the age of 53) introduced many Americans to good movies, and I rarely missed it.

Ebert’s website appears to be down, perhaps clogged by traffic from his many admirers. (It’s up again, but not responding quickly.)  He announced on April 2 that his cancer had recurred—it was discovered after a hip fracture—and it was a shock to hear of his death only two days later. Ebert was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, and then underwent several operations as the cancer spread, eventually resulting in the loss of part of his jaw as well as his abilities to speak and eat.  He was foodless and speechless for many years, but bore it bravely, even publishing a cookbook (he did the cooking, his wife Chaz the eating). After his cancer diagnosis Ebert seemed to rate movies more highly, almost as if his sense of mortality had made him more charitable.

I also admired him for his love of food and, especially, his touting of the awesome Steak ‘n Shake fast-food restaurants in the Midwest, which are wonderful. He was a Midwestern boy and never forgot the food of his youth. His blog appears to be down, but you can read an excerpt here:

The resulting Steakburger is a symphony of taste and texture. [...] It is essential that the sandwich is Served On a Toasted Bun. If you order onion, it will be a perfect thin slice of sweet Bermuda. If you order pickles, you will get two thin slices, side by side. Mustard, relish, tomato, lettuce can also be added, but tomatoes are a distraction. When you bite into the Steakburger, you want it to be gloriously al dente all the way through: toasted bun, crispy patty, onion, pickle, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

His taste in movies was just as good. My touchstone for movie critics is how they handle my two favorite films, Ikiru and The Last Picture Show, and Ebert put both of them on his list of Great Movies.

Ebert was a semi-vociferous atheist, and showed it a bit in a wonderful profile in Esquire (do read it):

Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it.

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

He certainly made many of us a little happier, and I’ll miss him. Two thumbs up for his life and work.

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43 Comments

  1. stacey
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    In his own words. Really wonderful. http://www.salon.com/2011/09/15/roger_ebert/

    • Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for posting that link! Beautiful.

      When I read what Prof. C posted —- “After his cancer diagnosis Ebert seemed to rate movies more highly, almost as if his sense of mortality had made him more charitable.”– I immediately thought of his kindness, and there it was in his own words:

      “That does a pretty good job of summing it up. “Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

  2. kelskye
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    This is sad news, I’ve really enjoyed reading his reviews. Even currently reading one of his books (Your Movie Sucks). What wit and what insight!

  3. Brygida Berse
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    He was a lovely man and a great film critic. This is a huge loss for American culture.

  4. Mel
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    I believe he was an atheist. I read that somewhere.

    • starskeptic
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      I think he was much more complicated than that label suggests…

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 4, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

        Aren’t we all?

        But he still was definitely an atheist. :)

        • starskeptic
          Posted April 5, 2013 at 5:46 am | Permalink

          He was also much more mystical in his views. More along the lines of Martin Gardner. I wouldn’t call Ebert an atheist and I don’t think he thought of himself that way either.

        • kirksroom
          Posted June 19, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          Then why did he write “Did I start calling myself an agnostic or an atheist? No, and I still don’t. I avoid that because I don’t want to provide a category for people to apply to me. I would not want my convictions reduced to a word.” and “I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.”

  5. gravityfly
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    So sorry to see him go! His reviews in themselves were works of art.
    I always read his review after watching a movie.
    I’ll miss him.

    • lamacher
      Posted April 5, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      He was a gentle and thoughtful man, gone before his time with a savage cancer – which he fought off for 10+ years. Thank you, Roger!

  6. Damon Chitsaz
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Could it be an April Fool’s joke? His Twitter account just posted “April Fools!!!”
    https://twitter.com/ebert_chicago

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      I wish it were a joke, but there’s too much press. I suspect it’s a postmortem prank posted, perhaps, by his wife, as he knew he was going to die soon.

      • Damon Chitsaz
        Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Let’s hope it’s all an elaborate prank..

      • Posted April 4, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        That may well be so. I clicked on the twitter ‘expand’ option and there were some disgusting tweets below from a couple of goons.

    • Jones
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Not his real account. Just a parody. His real one is here:
      https://twitter.com/ebertchicago

  7. Max
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    “I’m not sure about the ‘most powerful’ thing—Pauline Kael could certainly give him a run for the money—but he was hugely influential.”

    He was the most powerful critic because his reviews reached and affected more people than any other critic. (Besides the quality of his reviews.) I think that was the intent behind the “most powerful” statement.

    • revelator60
      Posted April 5, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      I think Kael was the greater writer, but Ebert certainly reached a wider audience and had greater influence, mostly because of the TV show. He was also a better and wider-ranging critic than his partner Siskel.

      Kael’s audience was more of the intelligentsia (after all, she wrote for The New Yorker), and though she had a certain level of influence with filmmakers and taste-makers, she noted that her reviews were less influential than those of, say, The New York Times.

  8. Marta
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always disliked movie reviews–could be a by-product of having been married to a film maker, but more probably a result of liking too many movies that reviewers don’t.

    But Ebert was an exception. I loved him on TV. I loved him in print. He was brilliant and kind, poetic and heroic, and the world is less because he’s gone.

    I named my favorite cat after him. Now, two Eberts are gone.

    RIP, Mr. Ebert.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Most of the time, if Roger Ebert liked a movie, I did too, and if he didn’t like it, I didn’t either.

      There were some exceptions.

  9. Posted April 4, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Such sad news. He was a wonderful man in so many ways. Thanks so much for this lovely post, J.

    & Hemant (a fellow Chicagoan) posted a similarly lovely & moving post here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/04/04/roger-ebert-there-is-nothing-on-the-other-side-of-death-to-fear/

  10. Posted April 4, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ve loved his reviews for years. Even when I didn’t agree with them, he always had something intelligent and thoughtful to say. More often than not, though, I agreed with him.

    The way he faced his illness, disfigurement and mortality with such dignity and courage was and is inspiring.

  11. Posted April 4, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I sat next to Ebert at a screening of a Sex Pistols documentary. Even though he was someone I admired, I had decided I wasn’t going to say anything to him.

    Instead, he initiated a conversation with me, and we had a friendly chat about films we’d seen (this was at the Sundance Film Festival) right up until the Sex Pistols took to the stage to introduce the film.

    Another memory is that people kept having him sign papers that he said were release forms to use his likeness. Never seen that before.

  12. David Duncan
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I’d read many of his reviews but didn’t know a great deal about him. I really don’t know where he got the time. I see that many of his films of the year are my favourites, including Fargo in 1996.

    This is a sad day, goodbye Mr Ebert.

  13. DrBrydon
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    This saddens me. Before they went national, Siskel and Ebert’s show started on WTTW in Chicago as “Sneak Previews,” which I used to watch all the time.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      I watched “Sneak Previews”, often with my mother, after other PBS stations started buying it.

  14. harrylime
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    I was privileged to meet him on the Ebert & Roeper Film Festival at Sea, a cruise with screenings of their top picks from Sundance. This was shortly before he lost his powers of speech. I was an aspiring critic, and my mom, being a bit of a stage mother, urged me over to the table where he was holding court the first night. Somehow the chair next to his was empty, so I shyly claimed it. He and his fans were discussing favorite Werner Herzog movies; I leaned into him and mentioned Every Man for Himself and God Against All. “That’s a great film,” he said, and it felt like a stamp of approval. We didn’t talk long, but he spoke to me as an equal. Never impatient or condescending, just a guy who loved movies and loved exchanging ideas. When he signed my copy of his book (“The Great Movies” – highly recommended), he drew a caricature of a thumb. His beloved wife Chaz told me he only did that for special people. It’s the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid. A great critic and a greater man – He’ll be missed immensely.

  15. Posted April 4, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    RIP.
    He was a great man. Really inspirational too. :(

  16. Gus
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I just knew him through his reviews and sometimes he infuriated me by praising absolute truckloads of commercial manure or bashing masterpieces. He would eventually backtrack and admit that he was wrong here and there. That´s a hallmark of greatness. So, thumbs up for him.

  17. Diane G.
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    A rational, liberal, atheist, and above all humane voice we can hardly afford to lose.

    Lovely tribute, Jerry.

    Among his many interests was evolution, of which he appeared to have a very solid layperson’s grasp, and which he touted in a few of his blog posts. (The science, not his grasp of it.)

    A remarkable human being.

    • Occam
      Posted April 5, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      Another interest of his was captioning cartoons. Thanks to a post by John Gruber, the creator of Markdown and master of daringfireball.net, I just learned that Roger Ebert had repeatedly — a hundred and seven times (yes, 107)! — entered The New Yorker’s Cartoon Caption Contest, which he once won (contest No. 281).

      Here are some of his funniest captions, selected by The New Yorker.

  18. madscientist
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    If I remember correctly, Roger Ebert wrote an article about how his dealing with cancer affected his criticism. It’s sad to hear of his death; he was a great critic and not just a critic of movies. Gene Siskel was a great guy too, but Ebert was far more remarkable in my opinion.

    • nickswearsky
      Posted April 5, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      He panned Apocalypse Now in his initial review as just another Vietnam movie (after Coming Home, etc…). I always felt he was wrong on that. He back tracked later. The film is now number 8 on his last list of the 10 greatest films in history.

      • George
        Posted April 7, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

        It was Siskel, not Ebert, who initially gave a thumbs down to Apocalypse Now.

  19. Christian
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    That’s really sad news.
    I was really dismayed when I first heard of his cancer and to be honest I didn’t think he’d survive this nasty illness this long.
    Fortunately I was mistaken. Still, I wish he had a couple of years more left.

    Mr. Ebert, YBR

  20. Posted April 5, 2013 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    I particularly like his reviews of Bergman films. Some of them are as good as the films themselves. Pay Roger tribute by reading the reviews of Bergman’s films. Maybe you might even become interesting in watching some of Ingmar Bergman’s films.

  21. Ryan S
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Ikiru is such a great film! It is nice to read his words on it as I’m sure it provided him with some inspiration in his later days.

  22. Kurt Helf
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Sad news indeed! I remember, when my younger sister and I were kids we never used to miss “Sneak Previews” on WTTW. We used to love how Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would bicker and were outraged (and amused) at Gene Siskel’s below-the-belt comments regarding Roger Ebert’s weight. I’ll add to Roger Ebert’s reputation for indefatigability in that he also answered my emails personally. I emailed “The Movie Answer Man” more than once and he always emailed me back. In my experience Gene Siskel, whom I “met” in person at a Bull’s game once (he basically ignored my expression of admiration), was less gracious; a friend of mine had a similar experience. But, in Siskel’s defense, people deal with their celebrity differently.

  23. JBlilie
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    A wonderful man; he will be sorely missed. That rare public figure unafraid to publicize (I almost wrote admit) his atheism.

  24. JohnJay
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    A few years back, he wrote a great piece about his wonder of science:

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2011/03/a_quintessence_of_dust.html

  25. George
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Ebert’s film class was offered through what is now the Graham School at UofC. He began teaching it in 1968. I think he stopped offering the course in the mid-1990s. I took it four times in 1988 to 1991. He followed the University’s schedule – offering it three of the four quarters in the year, taking the summer off. When I took it, it met in a screening room near State and Erie/Ontario. There were a group of people in the class who had been taking every one almost from the beginning – some who had been taking it ever since it launched.

    I saw some great movies. Ikiru for the first time. Errol Morris’ great documentary, Gates of Heaven. Gilda for the first time. Occasionally, we would get a double feature. Studios would screen upcoming releases. Siskel would stop by for some of them. I don’t know if studio reps were there to see how an audience of film buffs would react to the movie. When we saw Naked Gun, the entire class was in tears from laughter. I am sure the studio would have been thrilled with that reaction. It was fun to watch a movie completely cold – no background, no reviews.

    I got into two arguments with Ebert. He gave The Green Berets zero stars. I though it was a terrible movie but he had given worse movies a star or half a star. I said he was allowing his political beliefs to creep into his review. He said, “So?”.

    We also got an early screening of The Accidental Tourist. I did not like the Geena Davis character and thought the relationship between her and the William Hurt character did not work. Ebert named the film to his Ten Best list. It was nominated for an Oscar for best picture and Davis won an Oscar for best supporting actress.


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