The outpouring of affectionate, articulate and passionate tributes – in print and online – to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, who died last week, has been overwhelming and more than a little daunting and makes me reluctant to add my paltry praise to the hallelujah chorus.
But when someone so emblematic and vital to our tribe passes from the scene, its impossible not to feel some urgent need to express regret, admiration and, in Ebert’s case, awe.
In my nearly 25 years of covering movies from the far bleacher seats in Oklahoma, I encountered Ebert on three occasions – once at a press screening in Chicago when I was seated one row behind him and his regally beautiful wife Chaz and exchanged a few pleasantries during end credits, and twice at movie press junkets in New York.
Now junkets are essentially cattle calls where scruffy newspaper types, well-dressed TV personalities and hustling blowhard bloggers are assembled in L.A. or New York to preview an upcoming movie and interview the director and a few put-upon stars. The pecking order at these events is clear – powerful critics from big media outlets are granted one-on-one interviews and treated by publicists with great deference, while the rest of us are herded through crowded roundtable interviews and generally viewed as grudgingly tolerated peons in the juicy Hollywood vineyards.
When Ebert entered the hotel hospitality suites at the junkets where I saw him, all conversation hushed, eyes turned his way and we all secretly basked in his elevated stature. After all, he raised the bar for us all (the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, he even earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame).
In a fraternity where egos so often outmatch talent, Ebert was clearly a royal everyman – accessible, friendly and unpretentious, which is more than could be said for many critics of far lesser rank. By all accounts (and in any gathering of reporters, word gets around), he was sociable to his fellow critics, modest and undemanding. If publicists catered to him, it did not seem something he expected or demanded.
“Kindness covers all of my political beliefs,” he aptly wrote in his excellent memoir “Life Itself.”
Which is not to say that Ebert was the perfect pope of all critics. He could be sarcastic and cutting, he had his share of public feuds and his strongly held opinions, expressed in always elegant prose, were of a piece with his own idiosyncratic tastes (he hated “Raising Arizona,” and he panned “Reservoir Dogs” on his TV show at the same time he praised “Cop and ½”). Such is the lot of any strong-minded critic.
With all his notoriety, honors and celebrity, all his exclusive interviews and star-dusted encounters with movie greats, Ebert never forgot the essence of what we do – review movies. And he reviewed them with an infectious zeal and probing intellect, thousands and thousands of them, right up to the end. The great German director Werner Herzog was right when he called Ebert “the good soldier of cinema.”
In recent years, as he battled cancer and ironically lost his voice, Ebert soldiered on and wrote gracefully about a life well lived and what it all means. “We live in a box of space and time,” he wrote. “Movies are windows in its walls.”
- Dennis King