In college, just as I was beginning to review films for the school paper, I wrote my idol an email taking issue with one of his reviews and was stunned to receive a response. His message was short, maybe a sentence long, but encouraging, open-ended, the start of a conversation — a conversation that continued across some 15 years.
At the time, I was debating whether to major in film studies or fall back on something safer. I’d grown up with no TV and a film diet severely limited by my parents, who preferred that I spent my time reading books. And so I did. At a certain point, the single most important book in my collection was Ebert’s movie yearbook — a ginormous, dog-eared monster that amassed, in some 800 pages, many of his Chicago Sun-Times reviews. My bible. It described virtually every film I’d seen until that point, plus hundreds of others he wrote about so vividly, I could imagine them through his prose.
My favorite film back then was “Dead Poets Society,” which he had panned. Ebert’s negative reviews were invariably his most entertaining, and yet, he never insulted those who found something to admire in lesser films. Instead, he hoped to enlighten readers, challenging them to think, while whetting their appetite for stronger work. In his “Dead Poets Society” review, he rightly observed, “At the end of a great teacher’s course in poetry, the students would love poetry; at the end of this teacher’s semester, all they really love is the teacher.” It’s a testament to Ebert’s gift that, after a life spent writing about film, he made us love the movies all the more.
With Ebert’s encouragement, I took the leap and decided to pursue film criticism professionally, moving from Texas to New York, where I landed a job writing for AOL Moviefone. Ebert was one of the first writers to recognize the potential of discussing film online, as evidenced a decade later by his 839,586 Twitter followers. Through a strange twist, I became one of his editors, helping to fact-check the reviews he posted on CompuServe (an AOL sister company). This provided even greater opportunity to correspond with my mentor, and we traded emails regularly, discussing film, philosophy and my own budding career (I was then beginning to write for Premiere, the Miami Herald and other outlets).
In 2005, I finally got the chance to introduce myself to Ebert in person at the Sundance Film Festival. He greeted me with the warmth of an uncle, delighted to meet the young so-and-so about whom he’d heard so much. Our paths continued to cross on the festival circuit, and eventually, I met his wife, Chaz, a woman as full of enthusiasm and genuine, luminous love for cinema as Roger himself. Theirs is a contagious kind of energy, inspiring audiences and countless young critics along the way (decades before Ebert encouraged me, he supported my former Variety colleague Todd McCarthy).
To some, Ebert is known as the critic who dumbed down the profession, the guy who, along with “Sneak Previews” rival Gene Siskel, reduced judgment to a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. But as a reader of his print reviews, I knew this to be false. Though Ebert understood the soundbite nature of television, he hated having to limit films to a star rating, and resented readers who got hung up on the scores instead of considering the more nuanced opinion reflected in his prose.
He was an incredibly eloquent and accessible writer, writing for the public, not just his fellow critics, and prolific beyond belief, publishing a record 306 reviews in 2012. Though Ebert had cultivated an enviable wit (evidenced in scripts written for Russ Meyer and his lone novel, “Behind the Phantom’s Mask”), he put the films ahead of his own ego, never using a review as an excuse to show off. He always brought himself into the conversation — sharing insights on disability and growing up Catholic alongside his irrepressible liberal beliefs — and maintained an incredibly personal rapport with his readers, to the extent that he insisted on answering their emails. All of them.
In one of our exchanges, he quoted a maxim from critic Robert Warshow: “A man goes to the movies, and the critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” When one sees hundreds of films a year, it’s hard not to grow cynical, to become immune to their manipulations. The job leaves most of us jaded, gravitating away from sincere humanistic stories toward the esoterica on the fringes. Not Ebert. Over a 46-year career, he remained dedicated to what he had always loved about the movies, dismissing the chaff with humor (egregious cliches became the fodder for his “Little Movie Glossary”) and taking a stand in losing battles against 3D, videogames and the ratings board.
When cancer claimed his voice, Ebert amplified his presence online. And though many felt he’d grown “softer” in recent years, I sensed an even more personal connection with readers. His most vital writing became a series of autobiographical essays published to his blog, where he came out about his alcoholism and other deeply personal topics, many of which are collected in his memoir, “Life Itself.” With his reviews, he remained a true populist, while constantly going out of his way to advocate independent and foreign films — especially those he knew mainstream audiences would appreciate, if only they had the chance to see them. In many cases, his endorsement was powerful enough to ensure that they would.
Since there was no TV in my house when I was young, I wasn’t familiar with his show, but I knew of Ebert’s reputation from newspaper ads, which proudly announced, “Two Thumbs Up!” when he and Siskel agreed, printing their names in great big type above the film’s title. (Meanwhile, if you wanted to know who directed the movie, you’d need a magnifying glass.)
Ebert wasn’t just a star; he was a man famous for giving his opinion. And that book was full of them — not just pronouncements about movies, either, but wisdom about life gleaned from living a full one. Whereas I often feel most comfortable in the dark recesses of a movie theater, Ebert traveled widely, read unquenchably and interacted constantly with people around him. Before landing at the Sun-Times, he spent a year in South Africa — and I’ve always suspected the reason he settled into this profession is that film reviews, as he wrote them, served as a Trojan horse for the delivery of bigger philosophical ideas, of which he had an inexhaustible supply to share.