Roger Ebert was probably more influential than any other American film critic, ever. It’s not just the more than 10,000 reviews he compiled over the years. It’s not just that he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer for criticism. It’s not just the books he wrote (a couple of dozen). More than any of these things, it’s that he brought an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, a fine writing style, and a keen critical sense to the masses, via his long-lived television show with Gene Siskel (and, after Siskel’s death, Richard Roeper). I’ve read countless times how Siskel and Ebert were bad for film appreciation, because they reduced everything to a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, like Beavis and Butthead for the Baby Boomer generation. But they were also expert at explaining themselves on the show with brief comments that helped us understand why the thumb was pointed in that direction. Roger Ebert’s work on television was not as in-depth as his written work, but neither was it worthless, and he and Siskel brought smart movie criticism to the masses.
Television is the reason Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel are the only film critics many people can name, and that kind of fame only lasts as long as you are on the air. (Siskel’s name doesn’t come up much anymore, although he, too, was a fine critic.) But it is for his writing that Roger Ebert will still be read and quoted and relied on in the future. His career is exemplary for anyone in any field who wants to be a critic.
In later years, Roger Ebert’s health became a public issue, one he met with expected courage. In 2002, he underwent surgery to remove thyroid cancer. Four years later, he had further surgery, also cancer related, that involved losing part of his jaw. Complications from that almost killed him, and he lost the ability to speak, eat, or drink. After rehabilitation, he was back on the job, and also back in the public eye … he looked like a man who’d lost part of his jaw, and he couldn’t speak, but he didn’t let that stop him. Later, there was more surgery, mostly attempts to reconstruct his jaw, none of which worked. He didn’t let that stop him.
On Tuesday, Ebert wrote that cancer had returned, and that he was taking what he called a “leave of presence”. Ebert had embraced the online world as a place where he could continue to write, and he was one of the best people to follow on Twitter. He also had The Ebert Club, a web site that featured essays, previews, and full-length films. He threw himself into the online world as he had with the print world and the television world and the festival world. He always seemed to be on the job. Yet he never came across as a workaholic. No, he came across as someone who loved what he did, appreciated his family and friends, and was engaged in the world beyond films.
Two days after he announced the return of the cancer, Roger Ebert died. The last words of his final post: “I’ll see you at the movies.”