Australia’s Siskel & Ebert Sign Off After 28 Years of Savvy Sparring

Australia's Siskel & Ebert Sign Off

When Australia’s two most famous film critics, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, sign off for the final time this week, they will have been beaming into the nation’s living rooms for an unprecedented 28 years. That’s four years longer than the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert shared the balcony on U.S. television, and only two years less than Johnny Carson spent hosting “The Tonight Show.”

Even more remarkably, in this age of Web- and social-media-driven “consumer” criticism, Stratton and Pomeranz (or David and Margaret, as they are more commonly known) continue to reach a weekly audience of nearly 700,000 viewers (between the initial broadcast and digital downloads), or roughly 3% of Australia’s national population.

It’s little wonder, then, that some in the Australian film industry are panicked about the void that will be left by the duo’s absence.

“They have helped this country have a film culture,” observes director Gillian Armstrong (“My Brilliant Career,” “Little Women”). “Have you got a mainstream television program in America where your two reporters go to Venice and to Cannes, not just to say that Angelina Jolie walked up the red carpet, but that there’s a great Turkish film everyone’s talking about, or there’s a new Romanian actress who knocked our socks off and we’re now going to interview her?”

Like many of the great showbiz teams, Stratton and Pomeranz are a study in opposites attracting: David the stately, bearded, British-born journalist and film academic (and former Variety contributor), who has kept notes on every film he’s seen since the age of 9; and Margaret the brash, emotive voice of the people, whose vast collection of attention-getting earrings inspired its own Facebook fan page. He detests shaky, handheld camerawork. She adores anything with Sean Penn.

The partnership began in earnest in 1986, when Australian public broadcaster SBS approached Stratton (then serving as the network’s inhouse programmer-host for a series of classic and contemporary foreign films) about anchoring a weekly movie-review program in the “Siskel & Ebert” vein. It was Stratton who suggested Pomeranz, his SBS producer, as his on-camera sparring partner…and the rest, as they say, is television history. After premiering in October, “The Movie Show” ran on SBS until May of 2004, when the critics, at odds with a new SBS management regime, jumped ship to the rival ABC network, where the rechristened “At the Movies” has aired ever since. (An attempt by SBS to keep “The Movie Show” running with new hosts ran aground from low ratings in 2006.)

“We’re like an old married couple without the sex,” Pomeranz is fond of saying, as she did during a recent interview with Variety, in the hour before she and Stratton headed into a screening of Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” one of the last films they would be reviewing as a team.

“Sometimes our taste in film coincides,” added Stratton, who was also on the call. “Sometimes, we both like a film but for different reasons, or we dislike it for different reasons. Margaret’s a very different personality from me. She’s kind of…”

“Volatile,” Pomeranz interjected.

“Volatile, yes,” Stratton continued. “And the more volatile she gets, the more contained I get.”

It seems that even when the subject at hand is themselves, Stratton and Pomeranz can scarcely see eye to eye, gently needling and bickering with each other in the way that has been keeping their viewers entertained for close to three decades. While they both agree that David was once splashed with a glass of wine by director Geoffrey Wright, enraged by Stratton’s review of his 1992 Russell Crowe skinhead drama “Romper Stomper,” they differ on their memory of the precise grape.

“Red wine,” says Stratton.

“No it wasn’t, it was white,” interrupts Pomeranz.

“It was red,” Stratton insists. “I know. I had to clean the suit.”

That playful tension has been key to the program’s success, and also to educating multiple generations of viewers in how to think and talk about movies. “They’ve forged in the minds of many, many people that there’s no right or wrong about films, that there’s something great to be had about a depth of engagement and a depth of opinion, and that anybody has the capacity to do that,” notes London Film Festival director Clare Stewart, an Australian native who previously headed the Sydney Film Festival. “There are the David followers, there are the Margaret followers, and then there are the people who like to bounce off them. The discourse has been as much about disagreeing with them as about agreeing with them, and the fact that they understood the value of that has made them very important in Australian life.”

Where Stratton and Pomeranz do agree is on their commitment to treating all films equally, regardless of budget, advertising campaign or nationality. On a recent week, that meant a program including reviews of the latest “Hunger Games” installment, alongside David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars,” the French-Moroccan drama “Rock the Casbah” and the Australian thriller “The Mule,” plus a retrospective look at Stanley Donen’s classic musical “The Pajama Game.”

“If we’re reviewing something like ‘Winter Sleep,’” Stratton says of the three-hour Turkish drama that copped the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, “it’s a five-minute segment with at least two clips and some additional overlays during our discussion, which is exactly the same amount of space we gave to ‘Interstellar.’ That has been of enormous value, I’m sure, to the independent distributors, because even if we haven’t been 100% behind a given film, it was getting that kind of exposure on primetime national television at 9:30 on a Tuesday evening.”

“I’ve always thought that it’s not just the two of us on the show,” adds Pomeranz. “There’s a third voice, always, and that’s the filmmakers. People can look at what we show of a film and say, ‘I don’t care what those two think. I like the look of it and I’m going to go anyway.’”

Still, there’s no shortage of people who do care what Stratton and Pomeranz think. “The program’s so popular that everyone’s always saying, ‘Oh, Margaret and David think this about this film and that about that film,” says “Driving Miss Daisy” director Bruce Beresford, who was interviewed on the very first broadcast of “The Movie Show” (which also included a review of his Aboriginal drama “The Fringe Dwellers”). “It has created a rather good atmosphere for interest in movies.”

Indeed, Stratton and Pomeranz are among the few film critics in the world who have attained a level of celebrity usually reserved for those who make movies. Stratton says his strangest fan encounter came one night when he was rushing up George Street in Sydney en route to a screening and a young woman abruptly squeezed his posterior. “She said, ‘I’m sorry, I just love you,’ and then turned around and ran away,” he recalls. “I wonder if that ever happened to Roger Ebert!”

Both critics have also made brief on-camera appearances as people other than themselves. In 1994, Pomeranz landed a cameo as Guy Pearce’s mother in the hit cross-dressing comedy “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” while Stratton can be seen as an art student in Dutch-Australian director Paul Cox’s 1993 short film “Touch Me,” made for the “Erotic Tales” anthology series. In another kind of role reversal, Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush took a spin in the critics’ iconic armchairs for a 25th anniversary special in 2011, during which they “reviewed” David and Margaret before a live studio audience.

Airing this week, the final, hourlong episode of “At the Movies” will feature the critics weighing in on multiple holiday season releases (including “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Inherent Vice”), recapping their favorite discussions from past editions, unveiling their respective lists of the top five films of 2014, and a blooper reel. The decision to retire from the program was, Stratton and Pomeranz insist, a mutual and elective one (Stratton is 75 this year and Pomeranz 70), and they’d initially hoped ABC would continue the program with a set of new hosts. But when the network announced the critics’ impending departure earlier this fall, it also stated that the show would end with them.

Asked what they’ll miss most about the gig, Stratton (who will continue reviewing films in print for the Rupert Murdoch-owned daily the Australian) cites the behind-the-scenes team of producers and other crew people responsible for bringing the show to life week after week.

“I think I’m going to miss being Margaret Pomeranz,” says Pomeranz. “It feels like this identity you’ve had for all these years that’s grown on you and all of a sudden you’re going to shed that.”

“You won’t miss that, because in fact, as far as television’s concerned you’re not Margaret Pomeranz, you’re just Margaret,” counters Stratton. “If you say ‘David and Margaret,’ you don’t need last names. People in Australia know what you’re talking about.”