Todd McCarthy on the Secret to Roger Ebert's Popularity
A version of this story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Some writers have the knack to write like they talk, to talk like they write. Some people are both highbrow and lowbrow, equally at ease in a Paris salon and a working-class bar near Wrigley Field. While many writers are reclusive, private and neurotic, a few are gregarious, avidly public and seemingly devoid of complexes. Similarly, some try to hide their weaknesses and fake what they don't know, while others are up front about their shortcomings or, as we have witnessed over the past decade, about the ravages of their ailments. Roger Ebert, whom I knew since I was 16 years old -- and who died April 4 -- had all of these positive traits, which goes at least part of the way toward explaining why he became the first celebrity film critic, a man recognized on the street no matter where he was, the only critic whose death was sympathetically noted by a sitting American president. And the first film critic to become wealthy, an industry onto himself.
Above all, Roger had a way with words, a gift for gab. Perhaps the most astonishing display of erudition I've ever seen from any film critic came at the 2002 Telluride Film Festival. Roger was conducting a public interview before a packed house at the jewel box Opera House with special honoree Peter O'Toole, no slouch himself when it comes to spinning a yarn. Somehow the discussion came around to Irish poetry, and the two of them began rattling off phrases of verse by Yeats, almost as quickly as Abbott and Costello might have exchanged banter. Up and up the ladder they went, three, four, five times, competitively summoning quotations out of thin air, until, in gentlemanly fashion, they tacitly agreed to a draw, to the amazed appreciation of the crowd. I knew Roger had been an English major in school, but this was ridiculous.
By contrast, during his pre-1979 drinking days, I had listened in bars as he recited with mathematical exactitude the attributes of assorted Russ Meyer actresses, a topic he knew well due to the screenwriting sideline he pursued with the sexploitation filmmaker until his editor at the Chicago Sun-Times requested that he choose between writing reviews and movies. Even when he was drinking, Roger's mind was precise and disciplined.
Roger had a lust for life, a passion for always learning more and, above all, an inexhaustible hunger for films. The opening line of his memoir, Life Itself, published two years ago, reads, “I was born inside the movie of my life,” a phrase which plainly asserts the centrality the cinema plays in the life of any true film buff. Some of us have been able to turn this sort of dedication and enthusiasm into a profession, but only Roger found a way to transform it into a mini-empire and, now that Steve James and Martin Scorsese are making a movie about him, a legend.