Todd McCarthy on the Secret to Roger Ebert's Popularity

8:00 AM PST 04/11/2013 by Todd McCarthy
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Roger Ebert celebrating his Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975.

THR’s film critic celebrates the revered colleague he first met at age 16: “Roger’s skills as a barroom talker served him all his life."

One early key to Roger's success was that, before he was anything else, he was a creature of the Chicago newsroom. Chicago has a great reputation for colorful, hard-boiled journalism second only to that of New York and, when Roger joined the Sun-Times, the staff still featured such stars as Mike Royko, Tom Fitzpatrick and Irv Kupcinet. With a background that included having been the editor of his college newspaper at the University of Illinois, Roger forever remained dedicated to getting out the news about whatever film he had just seen, of what was happening on the front lines at Cannes, Toronto or Sundance. I believe this is why Roger, unlike some of his colleagues who have passed the half-century mark, always remained in the forefront of new technology and took to blogging so avidly.

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Roger often wrote about how he saved himself by quitting alcohol, but his skills as a barroom talker served him all his life. Two of his greatest interviews were with the legendary boozers Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin, and Roger's ease before an audience served him crucially when he and Gene Siskel began their TV show. Beginning in the late '60s, just when Roger was launching his career, television sought out literary pundits who could also be witty and entertaining to a general public -- people like Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, George Plimpton and Genet -- and Roger, along with Gene, eventually found himself a welcome guest of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. This was a pinnacle no film critic had ever ascended before, and because of the ease of his conversation, his middle-class everyman appearance and his pithy remarks about movies and those who made them, he was embraced by the general public in a manner unprecedented for members of his profession.

Behind the scenes, however, Roger was always learning. Admittedly deficient at the outset in his knowledge of film history and, as he put it, films “of consequence,” he crammed on the job. Ever-voracious in his appetite for films, he caught up on the classics, began teaching, went to international festivals, met the important auteurs and, amazingly, managed to straddle the raging Pauline Kael/Andrew Sarris auteurism debate, learning from both critics but never, to my knowledge, getting personal or nasty about it. Despite his vast erudition, he never developed any highbrow affectations; if anything, the ubiquity of his and Siskel's “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” judgments invited accusations of reductive, simplistic criticism. Still, this technique probably seemed less foreign to Ebert than it might have to most other critics, in that the Sun-Times had always employed a zero-to-four-stars rating system that Ebert inherited when he joined the paper.

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Just as the poetic jousting with O'Toole reconfirmed to me Roger's intellectual side, his full-blown celebrity status was made most plain when we made a trip together from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo some years ago to observe a new high-speed, high-clarity film system, Maxivision, that Roger championed for several years before the triumph of digital projection became inevitable. We flew up and back in a very cramped four-seater private plane, and after we arrived at the hotel, we could scarcely advance 10 feet in the lobby, in the restaurant or toward the car park without fans somehow materializing out of nowhere to accost Roger for autographs, a photo or, most of all, opinions about movies. Unless we were rushing off somewhere, he fielded these requests with grace and, if the film they brought up interested him, relish, although I could also tell that the constant barrage of attention could become wearying. But this trip made it clearer than ever that, in the world of film criticism, there was Roger, then all the rest of us.

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