Any lover of film my age was heavily influenced by what Roger Ebert wrote about the movies. He was not trained in film theory and started out his career as a journalist. You might say he was in the right place at the right time as the Chicago Sun-Times decided to anoint their first film critic. Ebert was already an accomplished individual and writer and in a way entrepreneur. He was more than up to the task and in no time developed his unique style of looking at and writing about movies. He played several roles; guide, interpreter, analyst and industry watchdog. No matter your education level or understanding of film as an art form, you could easily access his reviews and find something interesting, even unique. Oh yeah, one more, teacher.
His output was nothing short of amazing, watching movies everyday, most days more than one. He reviewed nearly 250 films per year for decades and despite being stricken with cancer, continued to be a film sponge. He was probably the best friend the movies ever had because he connected them to our society through the lens of culture. When you are that deep and long involved in an industry you become a historian as well. He connected the dots across decades, genres, actors, directors, even themes. If I was forced to select one word to describe him, I’d say, rare.
Like so many people, I followed him on Twitter and read his blog to ensure I kept my film mind sharp.
In 1984 he published the first of his fifteen books called, A Kiss is Still a Kiss. It was s chronicle of the film beat with stories of stars and filmmakers up close and personal. You got to see how near industry people let him get to them and it no doubt helped shape his personal view of the business. It was a business/industry/art form he loved and because of that special relationship he freely criticized it when he felt it was needed.
The 1980’s was the decade I ran a bookstore chain and we had a store in Champaign, IL. Ebert grew up in the neighboring town of Urbana and attended the University of Illinois. I read in Publisher’s Weekly that he was publishing his first book and immediately contacted his publicist and arranged for a book signing event in that store during one of his trips back to Champaign. In he came with no sense of entitlement or conceit. It wasn’t that long before that he won the Pulitzer Prize, but you’d never know it. He was jovial, relaxed and engaging. We spent a good half hour before the signing time in the stockroom of the store talking movies. His all time favorite was Citizen Kane, which I was a huge fan of as well. It was such a pleasure to have had that time with him and my mind and heart will sorely miss him.
Thank you Roger for allowing me to share decades of your life at the movies and I’m so happy that I can go back and pull any of your books off my shelf and indulge in my ongoing quest to learn more about the movies.
Audio Podcast of this post:
Book dust jacket scan
From Roger Ebert’s Facebook Page. Interviewing Senator Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956 for his Urbana, Illinois high school paper.
Photo of Ebert from The Chicago Sun-Times
Scan of A Kiss is still a Kiss from the collection of Steve A Furman