“The balcony is closed.”
Of all the thousands of words that poured out after the Thursday death of Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, 70, those were the ones that got me. A fan posted them beneath Ebert's last blog entry, and they brought home the finality of loss — a great voice in movie criticism that will never speak again.
He had so much to say that was worth saying, and he said it so well, right up to the day before he died. In the blog post Tuesday (updated Wednesday), Ebert told his legions of fans that his cancer had returned, this time in his bones, and that he was taking “a leave of presence” from his job of 46 years. (He was 24 when he became the Sun-Times movie critic.)
Upbeat as always, he looked ahead to this week's revamp of his website, RogerEbert.com, and its archive of more than 10,000 Ebert movie reviews; to Roger Ebert's Film Festival in his hometown of Urbana, Ill., later this month; to his plans to step back in the face of more radiation treatments and “at last do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.”
Instead, his last movie review turned out to be March 27, on Stephenie Meyer's “The Host,” which he skewered for a one-note structure “that robs it of possibilities for dramatic tension.”
Right again, Mr. Ebert.
Like millions of others in the pre-Internet era, I first encountered Ebert not in print, but on public television in the late 1970s. The opening of the weekly “Sneak Previews” had Ebert and rival Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel sneaking past a “Balcony Closed” sign to catch the latest flick so they could argue about it — or, more often, agree.
Siskel, tall and balding with a clipped baritone voice, came off as a haughty intellectual. Ebert was short, overweight, had thick glasses and a mop of hair, and spoke in a nasally tenor. His was the plain-spoken but articulate voice of the common man — only with uncommon insight and a delightful dry wit.
They often were compared to Laurel and Hardy, not just in appearance but because of how entertaining it could be to watch them fuss and feud.
Ebert later described their sometimes bickering assessments of individual films as similar to a sibling rivalry. As usual, he put something complicated into terms I could readily identify with and understand.
What I didn't know then was that they were turning millions like me on to the value of movie criticism, of how movies could be something worth debating, and how you could disagree with somebody and make your case far beyond “I liked it” and “I didn't” — and reach no bottom line about who was right.
In the back of my mind, the daydream formed that maybe one day I could try writing about the movies.
I followed Siskel and Ebert through channel changes and different show titles, until Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999.
By then, I was filing my own reviews and reading Ebert online, hooked on his incisive commentary and the way he personalized his reaction to a movie.
He was a great writer, the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer. Thumbing through his “Four-Star Reviews, 1967-2007” (one of 17 Ebert book titles), I came across this lead:
“'Broadcast News' is as knowledgeable about the TV news-gathering process as any movie ever made, but it also has insights into the more personal matter of how people use high-pressure jobs as a way of avoiding time alone with themselves. The movie was described as being about a romantic triangle, but that's only partly true. It is about three people who toy with the idea of love, but are obsessed by the idea of making television. Deadline pressure attracts people like that.”
Ebert is telling us, from experience, not just whether to see this movie, but how to view it. He's commenting not just on a movie but on life.
He also taught us something about death, which he said he did not fear. He had a cancerous thyroid removed in 2002, then cancerous salivary glands in 2003. In 2006, the cancer appeared in his jaw. After that surgery, he almost bled to death when a radiation-weakened artery burst. Multiple reconstructive surgeries to restore his jaw failed, and he lost the ability to talk, eat or drink.
Through multiple surgeries, he never gave in to self-pity, and he never stopped writing — not only about the movies but about life. “When I am writing,” he said in a journal entry, “my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well.”
Last year, amid medical complications and blogging, he filed more than 300 movie reviews, a personal record.
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, another personal-favorite movie critic, said none have had Ebert's combination of popularity and impact.
“Others as influential as Ebert have not been as esteemed. Others as esteemed as Ebert have not had the same direct and wide influence. And no one, but no one, has enjoyed the same fame.”
Martin Scorsese is currently executive producing on a documentary based on Ebert's memoir, “Life Itself.” What a shame we won't have Ebert to nudge our assessment of it.
Yet he'll be up there on the screen talking to us. Ebert's last words on his blog: “See you at the movies.”
He does visit me there, and lots of movie writers like me. He's inside our heads when we sit down to write, wondering how Ebert might have said it, and said it better.
The balcony is not closed after all.
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