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Remembering Roger Ebert

The 'At the Movies' host helped change the way we watch and review films
  

By Glenn Kenny
Special to MSN Movies

Roger Ebert, the indefatigable critic, journalist, screenwriter and media personality, died Thursday after a long battle with cancer. He was 70.

Best known as the co-founder and co-host, first with Gene Siskel, of the popular television series "At the Movies" (which underwent several title modifications over its 24-year run), Ebert was, like his fellow journalistic icon Mike Royko, a stalwart Chicagoite. Born in 1942, his association with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he still held the chief film reviewer's perch at the time of his death, began in 1966. He had begun writing movie reviews at the University of Illinois' student paper, and it was while he worked there that he saw and wrote about a movie that he frequently cited as a life-changing one in many ways: Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," a phantasmagorical and sometimes grim story of a gossip columnist confronting the emptiness of his existence. That movie rearranged his moral compass in a way that informed much of his subsequent writing.

See more: Roger Ebert on some classic films and movie duds

From almost the very beginning, that writing defined the mean of literate film reviewing in the United States. Ebert's style was conversational without being overly colloquial. He understood genres but didn't truck in genre hierarchies. He had a barbed wit and a trenchant social sense. His satirical impulses would find a somewhat off-kilter outlet in the early '70s, when he penned the screenplays for several movies directed by the famously bosom-obsessed exploitation director Russ Meyer, the most famous of which was "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," the rare major-studio-funded Meyer film, and one which the director and Ebert seemed to regard as a sort of practical joke on 20th Century Fox. (In the late '70s, Ebert collaborated with Meyer on an abortive punk rock project, the Sex Pistols-centered "Who Killed Bambi.") But it was for criticism that he was most celebrated, and in 1975, he became the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Plus: Ebert's death elicits wide reaction | 10 things to remember about Ebert

The year he won the Pulitzer was also the year that he began appearing with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel on a half-hour show for a Chicago public broadcasting station. Called "Sneak Previews" -- and eventually "At the Movies -- it became a national PBS show in 1978 and a syndicated commercial show in the early '80s. Its popularity was such that Siskel and Ebert became the most famous film critics in the United States, if not the world, even given that many of their viewers referred to them, respectively, as "the bald one" and " the chubby one." The pair, while not as traditionally telegenic as your generic happy-talk newsreaders, which '70s American television had made the norm, had a fiery chemistry, which made their fights about movies thrilling to watch. (YouTube is filled with outtake clips of the duo getting sometimes playfully, and sometimes not so playfully, snippy with each other, with Ebert in one delivering the classic putdown, "For Gene, speech is a second language.") While legions of print critics complained that their literally trademarked thumbs-up/thumbs-down mode of movie assessment oversimplified criticism, the fact was that without them hashing it out in the nation's living rooms on a weekly basis, a large portion of the country would barely be aware of film criticism. For better or worse, the Internet is rife with movie writers who got interested in cinema and cinema history by watching Siskel and Ebert.

Video: More on the passing of Roger Ebert

The two were well-compensated, hugely famous and arguably overworked. Both also turned in full complements of newspaper reviews and covered film festivals the world over. Ebert also wrote books: some compilations of reviews, others attempts at cinema history (his "The Great Movies" volumes). He even wrote a travel book about London. Siskel and Ebert's partnership came to a sad end in 1999, when Siskel died after surgery for brain cancer. Ebert continued the television show with rotating partners until settling in with his Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper. Roeper was a general interest columnist rather than a film critic; Ebert tended to dominate the dialogue even more as a result.

msnNOW: 10 films Roger Ebert hated

In 2002, Ebert began to suffer serious health problems of his own, and the example he set as he faced them resulted in what many consider to be the most inspiring phase of his career. Various complications from papillary thyroid cancer and its treatment resulted, in 2006, in a series of surgeries that removed a section of his jawbone and left him unable to speak. Not just unable to speak: The onetime gastronome could not eat or drink liquids either. Through it all Ebert continued to write, not only reviews but his "Movie Answer Man" column and more. Although his incapacitation ended his career as an on-air personality, he maintained a keen interest in the "At the Movies" show until breaking off his association with Disney, then the show's producer, in 2008, taking the phrase "Two Thumbs Up," which he and Siskel had trademarked, with him. In 2011, Ebert and his wife, Chaz, produced the program "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies," featuring critics Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, for public television, but it did not pay off.

Ebert also made a full embrace of the Internet and digital media, maintaining a vibrant website and keeping up a very active Twitter feed, from which he broadcast, with a typical lack of shyness, his opinions not just of movies, but the issues of the day. Not afraid of mixing it up with the news pundits of the conservative blogosphere, to name just one group that crossed his path, he made no apologies for being a movie critic who also talked about issues. The number of his achievements and innovations and life adventures is such that it would take many more web pages to describe them all — for example, he once squired a young Chicago on-air personality named Oprah Winfrey, who credits Ebert with encouraging her to develop her own television "voice" — but fortunately Ebert describes a good number of them in his own excellent words in his 2012 memoir, "Life Itself." It was not intended as a farewell, but it can stand as a grand one from both the writer and the man.

His death comes just two days after he announced that he would be taking a "leave of presence" after the discovery of cancer in his hip.

Bing: More about Roger Ebert

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.
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