As one half of duo of "Siskel and Ebert," he popularized a "two thumbs up" system of reviewing
Roger Ebert, the film critic who defined movie reviews in the age of television and then embraced Twitter with gusto, died after a long battle with cancer. He was 70.
His career spanned more than four decades in both print — for 46 years at the Chicago Sun-Times — and on television, making him one of the few movie critics to become a household name. He also had the distinction of being the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, an honor he received in 1975.
The Sun-Times confirmed his death on Thursday.
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President Barack Obama, who built a career and started a family in Chicago, the city where Ebert held sway, praised the critic in a statement after his death was reported.
"Michelle and I are saddened to hear about the passing of Roger Ebert," Obama said. " For a generation of Americans – and especially Chicagoans – Roger was the movies. When he didn't like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive – capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical. Even amidst his own battles with cancer, Roger was as productive as he was resilient – continuing to share his passion and perspective with the world. The movies won't be the same without Roger."
On television, he was known as one half of the reviewing duo of Siskel and Ebert, popularizing a "two thumbs up" system of reviewing. The pair's syndicated programs danced around stations and production companies, but were at various points christened, "Sneak Previews," "At the Movies With Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert," and "Siskel and Ebert at the Movies."
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On screen, he and Gene Siskel, the late Chicago Tribune critic who served as his original foil, would often clash over their differing opinions. Their physical differences, Ebert was short and rotund, Siskel, tall and relatively thin, helped provide a visual cue for their contrasting styles. In his memoir, "Life Itself," Ebert emphasized the heated debates did not result in any personal animosity.
“Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love,” Ebert wrote of his friend and colleague who died of brain tumor in 1999.
Those combative exchanges almost inspired a sitcom about two rival critics joined in a love/hate relationship, but both CBS and Disney ultimately took a pass on the pitch.
As for the reviews themselves, Ebert's were written in a straightforward style — they were wry and quick to point out failures in logic or pacing, but never relied on rhetorical pyrotechnics. If Pauline Kael, one of the only critics to achieve his level of influence and renown, wrote for the intelligentsia, than Ebert wrote for the "average Joe."
He had the good fortune to begin his career when American movies were being upended and overtaken by a new brand of directors and actors eager to challenge the studio system of old. From his perch at the Sun-Times, he would become a champion of many of these up-and-comers, promoting the careers of auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg and actors like Al Pacino and Warren Beatty.
Like Kael, he was one of the first to appreciate the lighting bolt that was "Bonnie & Clyde." Unlike Kael, however, who drifted away from reviewing as the studios and the movies became more corporatized and flagrantly commercial in the 1980s and '90s, he never seemed to get disenchanted by the direction that American film had taken. The revolution may have been over, but there were still good films being made.
The son of an electrician, Ebert grew up in the shadow of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he eventually matriculated. His roots were modest, and as his direct writing style and willingness to answer queries from even the greenest of reporters demonstrated, he never forgot his roots.
His final health crisis was not unexpected. On Tuesday, Ebert announced that he would take a "leave of presence" from reviewing films after doctors discovered a recurrence of cancer.
Over the past decade, Ebert suffered through a series of health struggles since being diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in 2002. Complications from a series of surgeries left him unable to speak or eat solid food, and caused his lower jaw to collapse.
Ebert wrote that after he fractured his hip in 2012, doctors found that cancer had returned. He has been undergoing radiation treatment.
"It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital," he wrote this week, while promising to continue writing. "So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness."
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Ebert was unusual in many ways. He had an outsized influence on moviemaking in America at a time when critics as a breed were in eclipse. As Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes were replacing a long-cherished priesthood of movie critics, Ebert learned to adapt to the digital age and grew his presence on Twitter to nearly 1 million followers.
He may have lost his voice, but it did not silence his pen. As he struggled with poor health, his writing became more personal and more political. Along with the movies, he would weigh in on the Republican Party (he was not a fan), gay rights, secular humanism and other hot-button topics. In between, he would blog about his battle with alcoholism and weight, and pen odes to fast food chain Steak ‘N Shake.
Then there were the movies themselves. Nearly to the end he remained a prodigious reviewer, citing movies like "Argo" and "The Social Network" as among the best of modern cinema, even as he confessed that he doled out four star reviews more liberally than he once had.
“When you go to the movies every day, it sometimes seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skillfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes instead of educating them,” Ebert wrote in "Life Itself." “Then you see something absolutely miraculous, and on your way out you look distracted, as if you had just experienced some kind of a vision.”
As news of Ebert's death spread, the industry expressed its grief — and its appreciation of the legendary film critic.
"On behalf of all of us who love the movies – thumbs up, Roger – for a life well lived and our heart-felt thanks for all the gifts you will continue to give us as time goes by," said American Film Institute president and CEO Bob Gazzale. (Ebert chaired the jury of critics at the AFI Awards in 2004.)
"It is no exaggeration to say that Roger, through his championing, had a large hand in making us who we are today on the world stage," the Toronto International Film Festival said in a statement. "He was a pioneer, a true lover of film. His passing is a huge loss for cinema. He inspired us and will continue to inspire generations. We are taking this opportunity to remember and celebrate our beloved friend, Roger Ebert."
He is survived by his wife, Chaz Hammelsmith, who he married in 1992.