You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Variety’s Peter Debruge Remembers Roger Ebert: A Champion Among Men

Critic remained a populist while championing independent and foreign films

Roger Ebert is the reason I’m a film critic.

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.

See Also: Roger Ebert Dies at 70 | Photos

Popular on Variety

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).

See Also: Hollywood Reacts to Ebert’s Death on Twitter

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.

VIDEO: Roger Ebert Through the Years

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.

More Film

  • Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and

    Film News Roundup: Leonardo DiCaprio Presenting Robert De Niro SAG Life Achievement Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Leonardo DiCaprio will present Robert De Niro with his SAG Life Achievement Award, the Oliver Sacks documentary finds a home and UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television gets a new dean. AWARD PRESENTATION Leonardo DiCaprio has been selected to present Robert De Niro the SAG Life Achievement Award  at [...]


    ‘Karnawal,’ ‘Restless,’ ‘Summer White,’ ‘Firsts’ Win Big at Ventana Sur

    BUENOS AIRES  — With Ventana Sur now firing on multiple cylinders, featuring pix-in post or project competitions for not only art films but also genre pics and animation – two sectors embraced by young creators in Latin America – “Karnawal,” “Restless,” “Summer White” and  “Firsts” proved big winners among Ventana Sur’s arthouse and animation competitions, [...]

  • (center) George MacKay as Schofield in

    From "1917" to "Jojo Rabbit," Composers of Some of the Year's Top Scores Talk Shop

    “1917,” Thomas Newman The 20-year collaboration of director Sam Mendes and composer Thomas Newman has encompassed midlife crisis (“American Beauty”), crime in the Depression (“Road to Perdition”), the Gulf War (“Jarhead”), marriage in the 1950s (“Revolutionary Road”) and two James Bond adventures (“Skyfall,” “Spectre”). Now they’ve tackled World War I, with “1917,” but Mendes’ much-talked-about [...]

  • Billy Magnussen Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Spinoff With Billy Magnussen's Character in the Works for Disney Plus

    Disney is developing a spinoff of its live-action “Aladdin” with Billy Magnussen reprising his Prince Anders character. The unnamed project is in early development for the studio’s recently launched Disney Plus streaming service. Disney has hired Jordan Dunn and Michael Kvamme to write a script centered on the haughty Prince Anders, one of Princess Jasmine’s [...]

  • ROAD TRIP – In Disney and

    Disney Boasts a Bevy of Hopefuls for Oscar's Original Song Race

    When the Academy announces its shortlist for song nominations on Dec. 16, you can be certain that at least one Disney song will be on it and probably more. Disney songs have been nominated 33 times in the past 30 years, winning 12 of the gold statuettes. This year, the studio has at least four [...]

  • Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    It’s next to impossible for a documentary score to be Oscar-nominated alongside the dozens of fictional narratives entered each year. But it did happen, just once: In 1975, composer Gerald Fried was nominated for his music for “Birds Do It, Bees Do It,” a documentary on the mating habits of animals. Fried, now 91, perhaps [...]

  • Ron Leibman, Jessica Walter'Mary Stuart' Play

    Ron Leibman, Tony-Winning Actor Known for 'Angels in America' and 'Friends,' Dies at 82

    Ron Leibman, an Emmy-winning actor who garnered a Tony for his work in Broadway’s “Angels in America” and played the father of Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel Green on “Friends,” died on Friday. He was 82. Robert Attermann, CEO of Abrams Artists Agency, confirmed the news to Variety. No further details were immediately available. Leibman, a native [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content