Death of a film critic

Roger Ebert receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005  

Roger Ebert, film critic

Born June 18, 1942; died April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert, who has died aged 70, became the first American film critic to win a Pulitzer prize, having turned his inky art into a branch of show business when he and Gene Siskel launched their influential film review show on local television in Chicago in 1975; by the early 1980s it was attracting a weekly audience of three and a half millions viewers across America.

The ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ from Ebert and Gene Siskel, with whom Ebert launched a bantering review show on local television in Chicago in 1975, was delivered to the camera in the manner of ancient Roman emperors deciding the fate of gladiators at the Circus Maximus.

"They can definitely kill a movie," the actor Eddie Murphy confirmed. A double ‘thumbs up’ was considered a much sought-after seal of approval by the Hollywood studios, and the pair’s enthusiastic reviews began appearing in advertisements and video packaging.

Although in Britain the BBC had broken similar ground three years earlier with Film ’72, presented by Barry Norman, in America Ebert and Siskel were considered pioneers of television-based film reviewing. Their double act was quick to catch on (Ebert was the stocky one, Siskel bald), but both continued to review for their respective newspapers, in Ebert’s case the Chicago Sun-Times, for which he also profiled stars and film-makers.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ebert mastered the technical aspects of film-making, and lectured to university students using a stop-motion 16mm projector to deliver a shot-by-shot analysis. When he ran an Alfred Hitchcock film in which there was the flash of a gunshot, he was able to demonstrate how the director had left a single frame clear so that the projector light would bounce off the screen at the critical moment.

Although he would view as many as three films a day in a screening room above a Chicago sandwich bar, Ebert considered that he had become less jaded in his judgements over the years. ‘When you go to the movies every day,’ he reflected ‘it sometimes seems that the movies are more mediocre than ever … Then you see something absolutely miraculous.’

High on Ebert’s list of all-time favourites was the British film noir The Third Man (1949). He also particularly liked Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and GoodFellas (1990) — the latter directed by his hero Martin Scorsese, a critique of whose work he published in 2008.

Occasionally he would turn his gaze to the small screen, and enthusiastically reviewed the series of British television documentaries, directed by Michael Apted, that began in 1964 with the film Seven Up, in which a group of seven-year-olds were asked what they wanted to do in life and what kind of future they foresaw. Apted revisited his subjects every seven years to see how their lives were turning out.

‘This series should be sealed in a time capsule,’ wrote Ebert on seeing the sixth instalment, 42 Up, in 1998. He ranked it in his greatest 10 films of all time, declaring it ‘a noble use of the medium’.

Roger Joseph Ebert (he pronounced it Ee-bert) was born on June 18 1942 in Urbana, Illinois. He remembered the first film he saw as a child: a revival of the Marx Brothers comedy A Day At The Races (1937).

At the University of Illinois he studied Journalism and edited the student newspaper. Determined to visit Europe, in 1962 he bought an airline ticket to London, where he saw Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) at a cinema in Piccadilly Circus.

On his return to America he freelanced for The Chicago Sun-Times, joining the paper as a feature writer in 1966. He was appointed film critic a year later, making his debut with a review of an obscure French film. ‘Georges Lautner’s Galia opens and closes with arty shots of the ocean, mother of us all,’ wrote Ebert, ‘but in between it’s pretty clear that what is washing ashore is the French New Wave.’

He recognised the virtues of commercial films too, hailing both Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as masterpieces, even though the critical current of the times ran against them. His review of Bonnie and Clyde, which he watched at its London premiere in September 1967, was typically prescient: "Years from now it is quite possible that [it] will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s," he wrote…

Full obituary in The Telegraph, London:

‘How I am a Roman Catholic’ in The Chicago Sun-Times:

Obit in The New York Times:

More comment from The New York Times:

Obit in The Australian:

Wikipedia on Roger Ebert:

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