On 4th April 2013, film journalism lost its most prolific and historic critic: at the untimely age of 70, Roger Ebert tragically lost his battle with cancer. Only a few days before, Ebert wrote a letter to his readers which was published on his website entitled “A Leave of Presence”, explaining that he would be taking a step back from work due to his ill health. His letter is now tinged with the utmost poignancy as he talks about his plans for the future and thanks his beloved wife and friends for their continued support. But whilst the film industry has lost one of its most revered writer’s, Ebert’s memory will surely live on.
Ebert began writing for the Chicago Sun Times in 1967 and continued to do so for the rest of his professional career. In that time, he also published over twenty books and many more articles, wrote four screenplays, co-hosted the At the Movies… television shows which became famous for his “thumbs up, thumbs down” reviews, and lectured at the University of Chicago. Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975 and the first film critic to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005. In 2006, Ebert underwent surgery in his fight against thyroid cancer. The surgery involved removing part of his jaw and rendered him unable to eat, drink or speak. Despite his debilitating condition, Ebert returned to reviewing movies less than a year after his surgery with the same rigour and passion as before. His list of accomplishments is truly staggering, and his dedication to film is unparalleled.
Films, like any art form, are entirely subjective but I trust Ebert’s reviews unconditionally. A Rotten Tomatoes addict, the only reviews I ever really look for are Ebert’s. Even when he panned films I loved (Armageddon and The Usual Suspects to name a few), he did so in a way that was absorbing, challenging and always bitingly funny. Ebert truly appreciated the artistry of film and wasn’t averse to praising films other critics dismissed as Hollywood trash because he recognised and respected their entertainment value for a particular audience. He also didn’t hold back when criticising some of the atrocities the silver screen has witnessed: on Tom Six, director of The Human Centipede, Ebert wrote that he was “not the kind of guy you want to share your seat on a Ferris wheel” and refused to award the film any stars because it “occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.” What I really love about Ebert’s reviews is that they connect with the common viewer. Ebert’s intelligence on film never succumbed to the verbose, arty-farty-ness that many critics fall prey to; he wrote in a way that engaged with the all-encompassing audience that the cinema invites. Cinephiles and Adam Sandler-lovers alike loved Ebert, because he loved what they love, and he wasn’t afraid to say it.
Ebert’s final words in his last blog post sum up exactly the sort of person, and critic, he was; kind, warm, generous and absolutely addicted to film:
“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”