From the beginning, Roger Ebert has been more champion than contrarian. When he loves a movie, he really loves it and will stop at nothing to spread the word.
During his first year on the job, he caught an obscure B&W film from an unknown director at the Chicago Intl. Film Festival called “I Call First,” celebrating it as “a work that is absolutely genuine, artistically satisfying and technically comparable to the best films being made anywhere.” The movie was Martin Scorsese’s debut.
Thirty-eight years later, he likened Paul Haggis’ “Crash” to Dickens and campaigned on its behalf in the face of critics who were disparaging it in print. The movie won the best picture Oscar.
Ebert is a man of strong, not fickle, opinions and a tireless supporter for the underdog, yet not so pretentious as to dismiss commercial films outright. Here are a dozen instances in which he took a stand, often in direct opposition to his peers.
1967 — “Bonnie and Clyde”
Bosley Crowther labeled it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy” in the New York Times, and the critical establishment agreed, but Ebert was blown away, calling the New Hollywood catalyst “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.” Years later he recalled: “When I saw it, I had been a film critic for less than six months, and it was the first masterpiece I had seen on the job. I felt an exhilaration beyond describing.”
1968 — “Wait Until Dark”
Audrey Hepburn earned an Oscar nomination for her role as a blind woman harassed by three menacing strangers, but Ebert dismissed the pic’s “idiot plot” with a zero-star review: “In the dark privacy of the 19th row … am I frightened? On the edge of my chair? No, I’m asking myself why she doesn’t lock the door.”
1968 — “2001: A Space Odyssey”
” ‘2001’ got some savage reviews at the first,” Ebert recalls. (Pauline Kael wrote it off as “a monumentally unimaginative movie” and John Simon dubbed the pic “a shaggy God story.”) “I literally reviewed it the same night it had its first public screening in L.A., so I had no idea what the critical reception would be.” Ebert gave it four stars, defending the “difficult” picture as “a beautiful parable about the nature of man.”
1972 — “Last House on the Left”
Ebert’s 3½-star reviews often say more about his personal taste than the 4-star raves, allowing him to champion unlikely films without committing to a “perfect score.” He was the only major critic to stand up for Wes Craven’s controversial debut as “a powerful narrative, told so directly and strongly that the audience (mostly in the mood for just another good old exploitation film) was rocked back on its psychic heels.”
1974 — “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”
Ebert put Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” on his 1969 top-10 list, then proceeded to dismiss four of the director’s early-’70s pics with a series of two-star reviews (“Straw Dogs,” “Junior Bonner,” “The Getaway” and “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”). But “Alfredo Garcia” inspired a reversal, and Ebert gave the film one of its only raves. “The movie is some kind of bizarre masterpiece,” he wrote. “It’s probably not a movie that most people would like, but violence, with Peckinpah, sometimes becomes a psychic ballet.”
1979 — “Apocalypse Now”
Many attacked Francis Ford Coppola for adapting “Heart of Darkness” as an expensive, over-the-top Vietnam picture. Kael called it a “nearly complete failure,” but Ebert named it the best film of 1979: ” ‘Apocalypse Now’ achieves greatness not by analyzing our ‘experience in Vietnam,’ but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience.”
1984 — Skeptical of homevideo
From the introduction of videocassette, Ebert was worried about “windows,” predicting a grim future in which people viewed movies alone on “fuzzy giant-screen home video systems.” In the introduction to his book “A Kiss Is Still a Kiss,” Ebert lamented, “The theatrical feature film, the most all-encompassing art form of the twentieth century, has been reduced to a necessary marketing preliminary for software.”
1986 — “Blue Velvet”
Fully aware that other critics (including Gene Siskel) were calling David Lynch’s twisted picture of small-town Americana a “masterpiece,” Ebert gave it one star, objecting to the way the director treated actress Isabella Rossellini: “She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film.”
1990 — Campaigned for an “A” rating
The week two X-rated movies opened, “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” and “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” Ebert proposed “an additional rating category, which should be called A, for adult. It would fall between R and hard core.” Later that year, the MPAA replaced X with NC-17. “But NC-17 means porno to everyone,” Ebert wrote in 1999, rekindling his argument for “a workable, usable adult category” after Warner obscured the orgy scenes in “Eyes Wide Shut” to avoid the stigmatized rating. “Why is it necessary for this movie to be available to people under 17?” Ebert demanded.
1993 — “Cop and a Half”
Ebert’s fans write him tirelessly, demanding fresh justification for his pans of such cult favorites as “Brazil” and “Fight Club,” and they simply won’t let him live down his three-star endorsement for Henry Winkler’s “Rush Hour”-style “wunza” movie (as in, “Wunza cop and wunza 8-year-old kid”) with Burt Reynolds. Ebert saw the buddy-cop story’s limitations but enjoyed the “essentially sunny and good-hearted” movie, and admitted as much in his review.
1998 — “Dark City”
Thumbing through four decades of top-10 lists, virtually every movie Ebert crowned No. 1 of its year went on to earn Oscars (most recently “Monster,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash”), Independent Spirit Awards (“Leaving Las Vegas,” “Eve’s Bayou”) or other major kudos. And then there is “Dark City,” his 1998 pick, “a great visionary achievement, a film so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like ‘Metropolis’ and ‘2001.’” Other sci-fi spectacles to earn four stars: “Star Wars,” “Strange Days,” “Tron,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and “The Cell.”
2005 — Ranks videogames as “inherently inferior”
Though certainly in keeping with other critics’ reactions, Ebert’s one-star review of “Doom” ignited a war of words between the critic and the gaming community. In his Answer Man column, Ebert dismissed the medium: “As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games,” later adding, “I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.” The debate still rages.