Word just broke within the past half-hour or so that longtime film critic Roger Ebert has died at age 70, two days after he announced that he would be taking a leave of 'presence' after a recurrence of the cancer that had led to the removal of a section of his jaw, rendering him unable to speak without the assistance of an electronic device and unable to eat normally.
Although Ebert had struggled with cancer, various surgeries and hospitalizations for more than a decade, and hence the news did not exactly come as a surprise, I found myself hit surprisingly hard by this. I had followed Ebert since I was a teen in the late '70s, when he and Gene Siskel's dueling-critic program, then called Sneak Previews, received national distribution. This was in a pre-VCR, pre-Netflix, pre-Internet age, and for a budding movie buff living in El Paso, the show was a way of learning about movies -- both the big ones that played in El Paso and the little ones that rarely did.
Part of the show's appeal, of course, was watching Siskel and Ebert battle when they disagreed. But they could be especially infectious when they agreed that something was good, and even more fun when they both tore into something that neither of them liked (early incarnations of their program included a "Dog of the Month" feature for especially bad fare). Here's a disagreement over a classic, Taxi Driver.
Ebert always seemed to be the more forgiving of the two when it came to movies, and after Siskel died in 1999, it seemed like Ebert lost a little edge, being more generous in handing out four-star ratings for his print reviews. But considering how many hundreds of movies Ebert saw each year since he began reviewing in 1967 -- breaking a personal record by reviewing 306 movies in 2012, along with assorted other blog posts and writing.
That he never became jaded, never lost his love of movies, is a little astonishing; during the roughly eight years that I worked as a backup movie reviewer for the Star-Telegram, I probably averaged about 150 movies a year, and that involved sitting through a lot of junk that eventually became wearing even if there was also a lot of good stuff to go along with it. Ebert saw much more, and yet until the very end he did his best to see as much as he could despite his health problems. He remained an ambassador for the movies, with events such as the annual Ebertfest in his hometown of Champaign, Ill. A lot of critics claim to love movies, but that love doesn't always come through in their writing or their actions -- but with Ebert, it did.
But as his excellent memoir from a couple of years ago, Life Itself, revealed, there was so much more to Ebert than movies. The book does detail his journalistic background, and how he was essentially kicked on to the movie beat, but it also gets into his battles with his disease, his lack of a fear of death, his love of travel and getting intentionally lost wandering through foreign cities at night, his love for his wife, his liberalism, and much more.
Its best sections, though, are about hanging out with such Chicago-newspaper icons as Mike Royko, Siskel and others, guys who seemed old-school well after newsroom typewriters and hats with press cards in them became obsolete. Ebert maintained some of that crust, but never implied in his book that he belonged in such storied company. But he did; anyone who could be as prolific as he was late in his life, who fought as hard as he did, shows a toughness that befits the hardest-edged journalists, no, newspaperman. As good as Ebert was with TV, the Internet and social media, I still think "newspaperman" is the term he would have liked best.