Q&A: Roger Ebert

 Art Shay/Grand Central Casting

In the 1960s, Chicago film criticism was dominated by little old ladies in funny hats, including the memorably monikered Mae Tinee at the Tribune. So when the Sun-Times hired an enthusiastic University of Illinois grad named Roger Ebert as its film critic in 1967, it was like a breath of fresh air. Here was a guy who loved movies and loved Hollywood but was equally keen on the adventurous work then emerging from all over the world. So stimulating were his voice and outlook that I, a local high school student and budding film nut, began writing to him about current films and the Chicago scene. He began running them in the paper, and so it was that a future film critic's words saw print for the first time.

Roger and I have kept up over the years -- in Cannes, Telluride, L.A., Chicago and Toronto, where Roger just visited -- and the publication of Roger's memoir, Life Itself (Grand Central Publishing, $27.99),  seems like a good excuse for a quick tete-a-tete.

What qualified you for that first job as a film critic?

When they looked around the newsroom, I was young and wore my hair long. I had written a couple of features about movie actors and obituaries on Walt Disney and Jayne Mansfield. I had no formal training and no college classes in film; I was an English lit major. I learned on the job and got a lot of feedback from Chicago film lovers who were not much younger than I was. This kid named Todd McCarthy, for example.

At that time, who were your favorite film critics, and who are they now?

Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann and Dwight Macdonald, whose Esquire column in the 1950s and '60s had a distinctive voice. The day I was appointed to the job, I went home and read Pauline's book I Lost It at the Movies. Stanley, who is still writing occasionally for The New Republic, stuck me as a model of intelligence and concision.

Did you view this as a job you'd have all your life, or did you imagine you'd move on?

I thought maybe I would do it five years. Then maybe 10. Before I became a film critic, I rather thought I might become an op-ed opinionator. Then a great and respected novelist. It was enormous fun and good experience for me to write [the 1970 Fox film] Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and see the experience within the studio system. But I don't believe I have the personality to be a film director. It takes an orchestra conductor or a general.

Describe your first visit to Cannes.

It was in 1972. I was so naive. I turned up in Cannes without credentials and expected to be welcomed. I was. I found a room in a pensione up the hill. I was stunned by the prices. In the old Palais, I saw Fellini's Roma. I didn't have my pocket picked.

Do you think the standard of film criticism is better or worse now than when you started?

Better, because of the Internet. This is a golden age of film criticism, although it's often no longer a paying job. There are no length restrictions. Writing can be more esoteric or expert.

What are your favorite encounters with old screen greats?

I had an unforgettable conversation with Don Ameche, who I instantly liked. I dined at the Pump Room with Robert Morley. As a flaming steak went past on a sword, he said, "Oh, my! They've made a real try!" At the 1967 Chicago Film Festival, I met Gloria Swanson, and she lectured me about the dangers of sugar and remembered auditioning for Chaplin when he was making movies in Chicago. My best interviews were with Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and Groucho Marx. They didn't work through publicists. They said imprudent things and didn't mind if you quoted them. This resulted in them coming through with more color and personality than today's sheltered stars.

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