Roger Ebert, Pulitzer-Prize winning movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and an amazingly passionate and prolific author (more than 20 books) died on April 4, 2012 (age 70). In his eloquent obituary for his colleague, writer Neil Steinberg wrote: “For a film with a daring director, a talented cast, a captivating plot or, ideally, all three, there could be no better advocate than Roger Ebert, who passionately celebrated and promoted excellence in film while deflating the awful, the derivative, or the merely mediocre with an observant eye, a sharp wit and a depth of knowledge that delighted his millions of readers and viewers… [He] reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years… [he] was without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic.” Indeed, Ebert was a walking encyclopedia of cinema and it was only fitting that his name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005.
For many generations of moviegoers, Ebert was an avuncular professor who was eager to share his expansive knowledge of cinema. Unlike certain film critics that can be rightfully called “film snobs” because they write to impress readers with their erudition, Ebert was the movie critic for the everyman — making cinema accessible and relatable. Ebert’s writing reflected not only a mastery of cinematic history and its visual language, but a real heartfelt love and appreciation of cinematic storytelling. So many of his reviews are not only deeply informed, they are written beautifully, almost poetically, including wonderful reflections and insights about the film, its context, and its meaning. For movie producers, Ebert and colleague Gene Siskel’s trademarked “two thumbs up” was the badge of distinction and helped ensure financial success.
Despite his 11-year battle with thyroid cancer (sadly, losing his lower jaw and hence the ability to eat, drink, and speak), Ebert embraced the power of the internet (in fact, few know that he was an early investor in Google, earning him millions) and found his voice on the internet — writing his blog, Roger Ebert’s Journal. He explains in his memoir: “My blog became my voice, my outlet, my ‘social media’ in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of. Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to.”
The spirit of Ebert will always exist in every theatre across America — in that almost palatable moment of anticipation as the lights dim, when a hush falls over the audience, and a new story unfolds upon the big screen. Two hours later, as the end credits roll, you can almost hear Ebert whisper: “What does this film mean?” What does the director want us to experience or consider? And that is perhaps, Ebert’s greatest legacy — that he encouraged us to have that conversation about film, particularly the ones that focused on the human condition — and the universal truths of life. In that process, he made our lives a little richer, because we could now truly savor the richness and depth of the cinema, which has always been a communal experience, to make us better human beings. As Ebert stated at an award ceremony in his honor: ““The movies come closer than any other art form in giving us the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes. They allow us an opportunity to experience what it would be like to live within another gender, race, religion, nationality, or period of time. They expand us, they improve us, and sometimes they ennoble us.”
It is fair to say that by teaching us to understand and appreciate films, Ebert brought us some happiness. This was important to Ebert, as he reflects at the end of his memoir: “I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
As his health declined, Ebert knew that the film of his life was coming to its inevitable end; but he was not afraid of dying: “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.” Two days before his death, the final sentence on his blog reflects his inspiring humility and graciousness: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
For further reading: Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert, Grand Central Publishing (2011)