Fellow film critic recalls origins of Ebertian oeuvre

It was entirely due to Roger Ebert that words I wrote first saw print.

Chicago boasted four newspapers when I was growing up, but the city’s greatness as a newspaper town decidedly did not extend to its film critics, who through the mid-’60s consisted almost exclusively of old schoolmarms who were believed to have held their positions since silent movie days. Eleanor Keen ruled the roost at the Sun-Times, while the Tribune made do with the cloyingly pseudonyminous Mae Tinee.

So when a recent college grad named Roger Ebert suddenly took over the Sun-Times slot, it was the equivalent of a blast of fresh air sweeping the cobwebs off the entertainment desk in the Windy City. Suddenly, there was someone on the scene with his antenna up for anything new or exciting that might be happening in movies anywhere in the world, and not a moment too soon, as the ’60s were when things really started getting interesting for cinema from so many points of view.

By the time I was 15, I had begun searching out foreign film screenings at Northwestern U. and elsewhere in the area, but it was clear that many of the more alluring titles that opened in New York City never made it to the Second City, and for one main reason: There were only a couple of theaters in town, all on the Near North Side — the Cinema and, occasionally, the Carnegie and the Esquire — that would play subtitled films, and they tended to get bottled up with long runs of films such as “A Man and A Woman” and “King of Hearts” that could last as long as a year.

Disheartened by this situation, I summarized it in a letter to Ebert, which, to my amazement, quickly turned up in print. Prophetically, given my unknown future on Variety, it was an unusually “trade”-oriented missive for the Sun-Times to have run, although one of undoubted local interest.

Thrilled by the attention and acceptance, I stepped up the correspondence, resulting in a couple more printed letters, as I recall, and climaxing with an invitation from Roger himself to meet him at the famous O’Rourke’s. Being only 16 or 17, I couldn’t legally join him in Chicago newspapermen’s favorite pastime, one Roger enjoyed to the hilt until famously quitting drinking not all that many years later. But I remember our conversation as very spirited indeed, as we discussed Bergman (I believe “Persona” had just come out), the difference between cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s work for Godard and Truffaut, Pauline Kael (Roger’s prevailing influence at the time — he was very much learning on the job) and all the exciting films we were dying to see but that still hadn’t come to Chicago, most notably Orson Welles’ “Falstaff” (“Chimes At Midnight”), which had effectively been killed off for the States by Bosley Crowther’s pan in the New York Times.

I either wrote a letter about that, or encouraged Roger to write something. Eventually, I remember joining Roger and a number of other Welles fanatics for the Friday evening opening of this masterpiece which, unable to secure a better home, was unceremoniously booked into the Town, an out-of-the-way adults-only house that normally featured between-show striptease performances by one Babette Bardot.

Once I’d left for college and started reviewing films there, I’d send Roger the occasional piece and normally get a nice, brief note back. By the time I hit Hollywood in the mid-’70s, Roger was already a legend-in-the-making, both for his Pulitzer — the first ever awarded to a film critic — and for his association with Russ Meyer, officially as screenwriter of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and unofficially as a contributor to subsequent Meyer sex epics. The six weeks Roger spent at the Sunset Marquis Hotel cranking out “Beyond,” while Russ kept the girls away and held the whip to Roger, were part of Hollywood lore of the time.

Guys and ‘Dolls’

A big boy himself, Roger always had an avid bachelor’s enthusiasm long before his marriage to the splendid and stalwart Chaz, and he unabashedly shared Russ’ bigger-is-better tastes in women. I’ll never forget one long night at the late, lamented Le Petit Carlton on the rue d’Antibes in Cannes, when Roger and Time magazine critic Richard Corliss got into a raging argument over the merits of the sultry Canadian sexpot du jour Carole Laure, whom Corliss considered the ne plus ultra of beauty and sexiness. After voices rose and faces reddened for a few minutes, Roger had the last word when he sputtered, “Carole Laure, she looks like a boy!”

Years later, Roger and I made note of our shared history on the air when he invited me to do some thumbs-up, thumbs-down with him as a TV guest critic in the year after Gene Siskel died. When we sat down to record the show, Roger pointed out that this very same Chicago studio had been the site of one of the history-making Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960; I was right in guessing that Roger made sure he occupied the same side of the stage that JFK had.

For a segment of the show, Roger and I made a trip to San Luis Obispo to evaluate a new film projection technique, and it was there that the depth and breadth of Roger’s fame and popularity finally sank in for me. Even at the city’s relatively small airport and in a local restaurant, Roger was stopped by a fan at nearly every turn, either for an autograph or an opinion about a movie. Roger, unlike any other critic in history, was a household name bordering on a public commodity, one strangers felt no hesitancy about approaching. If Roger didn’t have time for them (as I witnessed on the streets of Chicago), he’d say so. But if he did, he’d readily engage with any fan or buff, willing to regurgitate for the hundredth time his opinions about anything from a “Die Hard” movie to a Japanese horror film.

Reputation precedes him

Because of his TV show, Roger is unquestionably the first film critic to have become rich solely from his work, a fact duly and wistfully noted by every other member of his profession.

Over the years, we would reliably see one another in Cannes, Telluride and Toronto. Two occasions from recent years stand out. One, which stemmed from a situation that generated far more attention than anyone could have anticipated, came when Roger and I, along with several other American critics, were unable to get into the all-important first press screening of “Far From Heaven” in Toronto, despite the fact that, anticipating the crunch, we had arrived at least a half-hour early. When, in our stead, a lineup of unknown, and mostly Canadian, market-badge holders were allowed to file in, Roger blew a fuse and, at a considerable volume, began delivering at festival functionaries, and anyone else who would listen, an entirely logical and justified rant about how we had come all this way to do a job and report on the film to a waiting world and how the festival, in a misguided display of egalitarianism, was giving priority to a bunch of lower-level industry types for whom seeing the film was not a matter of equal urgency. Especially in the immediate post-9/11 world of antipathy for all things American (except, evidently, “Far From Heaven”), this didn’t go down too well with the locals, one of whom petulantly whined, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go home and start your own film festival?”

To its credit, the festival quickly addressed the problem, but in the meantime Roger and I, along with another longtime colleague, Harlan Jacobson, took advantage of our suddenly free two hours to have a wonderful dinner, at which the subjects ranged from the big difference in virginity-losing age pre- and post-1968 to Roger’s deep-rooted Anglophilia, which began when he was a student and reached its full expression in his wonderful 1986 book, written with Daniel Curley, “The Perfect London Walk,” a guide to discovering the city’s wonders and characters on foot that any visitor is advised to take.

More recently, shortly before the onset of his recent and most grave illness, Roger was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Incongruously but wonderfully, the keynote speaker was Werner Herzog, who attributed much of his early recognition in the United States to Roger. But the revelation to me was that Roger, who has no children of his own, enjoys an enormous family life courtesy of the extended family of Chaz, many members of which had flown out for the occasion.

Roger has been the great popularizer among critics, but he has always remained just that, a critic, one who knows his stuff, who still gets excited by a new discovery, and who can hold his own with a highbrow French aesthete on the Croisette or with a fanboy on Hollywood Boulevard. For the four decades that I’ve known him, Roger Ebert has always been The Man.

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