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.
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.
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.
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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