There has never been a movie critic who had quite the clout and reach that Roger Ebert did, and there probably never will be again.
Ebert, who died Thursday of the cancer he had been fighting for over a decade, was possibly one of the only film critics who was as famous as the medium and stars he wrote about.
Some came close. François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were renowned movie critics who became even more famous as nouvelle vague filmmakers, but their criticism never had the marquee wattage of their art. Pauline Kael was nothing short of a taste-making force during her long tenure at the New Yorker, but even at her most influential, her views were limited to those who bothered to read them. Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice was a pioneer of the American version of the “auteur theory” – thanks again to Truffaut and Godard – but his audience was as devoted to the serious appreciation of film as it was to the critic.
Ebert was a different kind of animal. A plain-spoken self-described “fan,” for whom movies were emotional experiences that either satisfied your desire to be transported for a couple of hours or bored you into wishing you could be transported back outside, he spoke in a language just about anyone could understand and with a passion nobody could deny. He was an expert but a user-friendly and accessible one, and you never felt that he’d talk over your head or call you stupid for liking something he didn’t.
This is a rare gift and one that cannot be underestimated, at least if we are to understand why this man, who did not look like a movie star or seem to live a life much different from the rest of us who enjoyed a movie and popcorn with reasonable regularity, became a superstar of sorts of movie reviewing. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a household name and pop culture icon in his own right, and possessor of perhaps the most formidably dreaded thumb since Caligula.
To even begin to comprehend this, we’ve got to look and listen to Ebert as well as read him, which is to say appreciate the man as a master of the multimedia world. That he was such an early and avid adapter to the digital world is no surprise: if there was a medium, Ebert had a message. As much as he wrote – and I can’t think of any other movie reviewer who wrote quite as much and as tirelessly as Ebert – he was as famous for his image and his voice as his prose. But even that misses the point: Ebert became such an irresistibly popular movie critic because there seemed to be no difference between the guy you read and the guy you watched on At the Movies. He spoke with the same passionate but direct clarity, and he applied the same kind of everyman common sense to his judgment, even if he was judging something – like a foreign movie or indie outlier – most everymen might not like. There seemed, in other words, to be no difference between Ebert the newspaper critic and Ebert the TV reviewer, and that conveyed an utterly charismatic quality we call sincerity.
Naturally, he was held in high suspicion in some quarters, especially those that saw a decline in the influence of movie critics in the past couple of decades and a corresponding ascendance of Ebert’s cross-media, multi-platform domain. Thumbs up, dumb down. For these critics of the critic, Ebert was the harbinger of a surging anti-intellectualism and vapidity in movie criticism, a reduction of a once proud critical practice to a matter of wagging thumbs and – even worse – the mob-like din of the fanboy Internet hordes. Suddenly, everybody seemed to think he was a critic, and Ebert looked like the obvious guy to blame.
Of course he was and he wasn’t. He was in the sense that nobody popularized movie criticism quite like Ebert, the expert who made you feel like you could be one too. But he wasn’t in the sense that, for all his ubiquity, he didn’t generate anyone with anywhere near his fame or popularity.
In other words, in true showbiz fashion, he made it look easy. That’s what stars do.