This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail Saturday, March 15, 1997
Roger Ebert's famous thumbs are pointed down, gripped around a knife and fork, working on a steak at the hotel restaurant. He usually doesn't eat meat but there's not much else on the menu. The movie critic, who, with Gene Siskel, has dished out instant movie reviews for 21 years on television, watches his diet since having slimmed down considerably after his marriage in 1992 to Chaz Hammelsmith, an African-American Chicago lawyer. Officially, though, Ebert, the critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, is the fat one; Siskel, the critic for The Chicago Tribute, is either the "other one" or the bald one, depending on whom you talk to.
This may be an ignominious identification for a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has just published an anthology of serious film writing, Roger Ebert's Book of Film. But he doesn't seem particularly thin-skinned. As viewers of the show know from watching the men's combative jabs, Ebert can take it or dish it out. The reason the show has been successful for so many years, he says, is because it's about movies, not about being sociable. When he and Siskel began the show, there was "professional rivalry and even some dislike" between the two of them. The result was that "we took it seriously" and never pretended to be bubbling over with enthusiasm, the way nearly all other movie shows do.
"What I really like to do is write movie reviews," he explains. "And that's what I do 90 per cent of the time. The television show is just something I do on Wednesday nights."
When it's suggested that one evening's work is responsible for more than 90 per cent of his reputation, Ebert puts down his fork for a moment and contemplates.
"You think so? I don't know. There are my video review books, and my CompuServe links and the Web site and my other books . . ."
But he shrugs an if-you-say-so shrug and returns to his dinner. He hopes, he says, that the television show will encourage film fans to look to his other work, where he offers more analysis and detail. On its own, the show is the only show of criticism that has ever enjoyed a wide audience (more than 200 stations syndicate it). Siskel and Ebert do more to promote foreign movies, documentaries and independent U.S. films than anyone else in the media.
As for the claim that their instant reviews have a disproportionate influence, he flatly dismisses it: "Whenever I'm asked if critics have too much power, I say the same thing: I don't have enough power. A studio with a $20-million advertising budget that can have teen-agers across the country lined up at six o'clock on a Friday night to see a movie has real power. I'd like to write a review a really good film that boosted its box office by 50 per cent some time but there's no evidence that this ever happens."
Ebert was raised in Illinois, and he has spent his life in the state, with the exception of a one-year stint at university in Cape Town, South Africa, courtesy of a Rotary Club scholarship. Now 54, he has worked for the past 30 years as the reviewer for The Chicago Sun-Times. He has published magazine articles for Esquire and even written a screenplay for exploitation director Roger Corman (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls ). But mostly, he's a stick-in-the-mud: He teaches one night a week at the University of Illinois, belongs to a local Studebaker club, sketches as a hobby and has never felt much interest in pursuing a career in the media centres of New York or Los Angeles. He is well-travelled though, making annual pilgrimages to all of the world's major film festivals, where he is better known than most movie stars. And his new book, a 775-page tome published by Norton Books, belongs to the same series as the huge Norton Anthologies of English Literature. One of the 114 selections is a profile of Lee Marvin written by Ebert for Esquire magazine. Many of the rest -- ranging from Tolstoy and Graham Greene to a Quentin Tarantino FAQ (frequently asked questions) from the Internet -- came from Ebert's personal library. Others were suggested by friends; a few were picked up from books he found in second-hand stores around the University of Toronto while visiting the film festival here.
He studied English literature at the University of Illinois, where close textual readings and the emphasis on internal consistency were the governing critical orthodoxies. His approach is indicated in a discussion of the special-effects thriller, Dante's Peak. Most reviewers would have simply scalped their thesaurus for synonyms for "silly." Ebert goes on at length analyzing the logistic improbabilities of trucks driving up mountains and out-racing lava flows, and the unlikelihood of the family pet being rescued. He acknowledges that, apart from the television show, he doesn't really get a chance to talk to people about movies much. He canvasses my opinion on the Oscars and agrees The English Patient will take best picture, "though Fargo is the film that should win."
In the book is an essay by The New Republic's film reviewer Stanley Kauffmann titled Why I Am Not Bored, in which he discusses, after years of movie reviewing, why he still likes what he does and his belief that "no one can sit in a film theatre without acknowledging, however secretly, that this is where some part of his psyche originated."
What part of Roger Ebert's psyche is linked to his desire for movie-going? He answers promptly, obviously having asked himself the same question.
"I think it's that I'm a creature of ritual," he says. "Every year I go to Cannes on the same day, and I want to eat dinner at the same restaurant each year. My wife says that I keep wanting to take the vacation I took last year and do it better. I like reviewing movies because I've done it for a long time and I really like doing it."