Photo: Mario Anzouni/Reuters
Roger Ebert wasn't the first famous film critic, nor the first one to appear on television. But very few had a greater impact than Ebert, and fewer still were as well respected.
Ebert, who died on Thursday after a long bout with cancer, was a man who knew and loved film and happened to be a talented journalist - he earned a Pulitzer Prize for his reviews in 1975, the first film critic to do so.
Yet he was not just a gifted writer. Ebert was someone who changed the face of film criticism in several fundamental ways. As co-host of "Sneak Previews" with Gene Siskel - the PBS series that was the springboard for the syndicated "Siskel and Ebert At The Movies" - Ebert helped devise the first truly successful format for reviewing films on television. The show is best remembered for introducing the phrase "Two thumbs up" to the public lexicon. Yet the show also gave Ebert and Siskel the opportunity to discuss the virtues and flaws of a film in a way most broadcast critics did not, and though their frequent disagreements were fun to watch, they also gave a clear picture of the passions of the two writers.
Ebert and Siskel also reaffirmed the often-overlooked power of critics to shape a film's success. If a movie earned thumbs up from Roger and Gene, it was sure to be mentioned prominently in the picture's ad campaign. Many in the industry believed it could mean the difference between a hit and a flop. In addition, Ebert and Siskel used the show to champion offbeat and independent films that mattered to them, and Ebert even curated an annual film festival at the University of Illinois devoted to pictures he believed were overlooked.
While television made Ebert famous and wealthy, he clearly preferred being in front of a keyboard than a camera, and that became increasingly clear in the last decade of his life. Ebert's battle with cancer prevented him from appearing on television in last years (though he and his wife Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert produced the show "Ebert Presents At The Movies" through 2011, in which critics he admired reviewed new films). But he maintained a prolific output as a writer, reviewing literally hundreds of new movies each year as well as revisiting older titles. (As Ebert himself once wrote, "My newspaper job is my identity.")
Ebert also took to the internet, writing a blog in which he wrote with disarming honesty about all aspects of his life, from his misadventures writing a unproduced movie for the Sex Pistols to his struggle with alcoholism (he was sober from 1979 onward) and creating an online archive of his decades of work as a film critic. And Ebert joined Twitter, where his often-witty posts earned a following of their own.
Only a day before his death, Ebert published a blog post in which he said his health issues were forcing him to take a "leave of presence" - he intended to cut back on his schedule of movie reviews, but would still keep up his blog, beef up his internet presence, and even launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund new episodes of "Ebert Presents At The Movies." The message was as clear, articulate, and passionate as ever, and it's hard to believe it was the work of a man with less that 48 hours to live.
[Related: Roger Ebert’s 7 Most Shareable Quotes]
Ebert was a man who changed the shape of film criticism at a time when Hollywood was reshaping itself from the late 1960s to the present day. But to the end, he was dedicated to two things - his craft, and his love of movies. It doesn't seem likely anyone is going to surpass on either count any time soon.
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