Roger Joseph Ebert (June 18, 1942 April 4, 2013) was a film critic who in his later life was probably the most famous film critic in the United States. He was the reviewer-in-chief at the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013.
In 1975, Ebert teamed up with Gene Siskel, reviewer in chief at the Chicago Tribune, to present a film review program called Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, the great grandfather of the Video Review Show, on the local PBS station. The program went to national syndication as Sneak Previews in 1978; in 1982 Siskel & Ebert moved to Syndication on commercial stations across America, as a new but very similar program called At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert (or vice versa). Unexpectedly, this made him one of the two most important movie critics in America. Because the show was televised, many more Americans saw it than read the reviews in the newspapers; because Ebert and Siskel had credentials in real newspapers in a major city first, and didn't review every movie favorably, they could be taken more seriously than most other movie reviewers on television. Siskel and Ebert's passive aggressive chemistry was the stuff of legend. It was often thought that due to their occasionally hostile on-screen presence when they disagreed, that the two hated each other. However, each considered the other a close friend, even if their relationship was competitive by nature. In fact, in 2009 on the tenth anniversary of Siskel's death, Ebert posted a touching remembrance of his friend on his blog.
When Siskel died in 1999, Ebert kept on the show with guest hosts until it was settled that it would be At the Movies with Ebert and Roeper, with Richard Roeper, another Chicago Sun-Times critic. This made him the most important living movie critic in America. The show ended in 2008 partially because his throat cancer was preventing him from doing most of the episodes for over a year and a half. (To do film reviews on television, you have to be able to speak.) Sadly, due to a few surgeries that successfully eradicated his cancer, Ebert lost the ability to speak entirely and part of his lower jaw was removed. During the last few years of his life, he "spoke" through handwritten notes and a computer speech program. In 2010, a Scottish company created a voice similar to Ebert's own for him to use as his new "voice," using his DVD commentaries and other similar recordings.
In 2011, to replace the new At the Movies which had been canceled by its distributor, Ebert and his wife Chaz started their own movie review show on PBS called Ebert Presents at the Movies hosted by Christy Lemire of the Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of Mubi, which follows largely the same format as Ebert's other shows. Ebert himself appeared in a segment on the show called "Roger's Office" which features voice over narration (either with the help of either his new "voice," or a famous friend such as Werner Herzog or Bill Kurtis) of one of his recent reviews or musings. Ebert still wrote weekly review columns as well as a daily blog and maintained a very active Twitter account, where he was still an influential force in movie criticism's new dominant medium. His last cancer "treatments" had been such tough going through that he vowed that if the cancer re-emerged, he would let it take its course; this eventually transpired in 2013. His website continues to publish reviews, now written by a team of reviewers.
Ebert loved movies, and this was shown in his reviews. He was a fairly lenient criticnote who liked a range of genres and was primarily concerned with whether or not a film was made with passion and craft. However, his wrath, when deployed, was legendary. He published three compilations of bad reviews: I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie! (reviews published in 1999 and earlier), Your Movie Sucks (reviews published from 2000-2006) and A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length (reviews published from 2006-2011). He printed annual compilations of his movie reviews from The '80s onward, and wrote three books of essays about his favorite movies entitled The Great Movies. These essays also available on his website in a condensed form. He also wrote Ebert's Glossary of Movie Terms, Ebert's Little Movie Glossary and Ebert's Bigger Little Movie Glossary, which are books of Film Tropes in The Devil's Dictionary form. (An even bigger movie glossary is on his web page.) They could be considered a proto TV Tropes in a sense (and the Trope Namer for many).
He also maintained a column called The Movie Answer-Man, where he addressed various topics given to him by reader comments. Sometimes addressing fandom aspects like...
- One reader comment said that a positive review of a certain film gave him Hype Backlash, while a negative review of another film made him want to see it. Ebert's reply was that a critic's job is not to pass judgment on a particular movie, but to give the reader an impression as to whether or not they would want to see it themselves.
- Another review addressed the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny where one comment said that Wolverine would beat Storm in a fight because he could heal, whereas Storm would die once stabbed by Wolverine. His reply was simply a question of how could someone whose power is healing be more powerful than someone who can control the elements.
He was one of the great proponents of film preservation, letterboxing (back when most televisions were square and most movies in theaters weren't), and giving credit to directors and screenwriters; he probably helped make these issues important. Also a proponent of seeing films in theaters, but he accepted modern viewing habits enough to write DVD reviews. He did a few audio commentaries notably ones for two of his all-time favorite films, Citizen Kane and Dark City, which have appeared on most releases of those films on DVD. He was also a master at uncovering the Freeze-Frame Bonus — for years, he would spend a week at the University of Colorado's World Affairs Conference dissecting a film frame-by-frame with an audience's help to reveal small details.
He was one of the major opponents to Colorization. He often liked Deliberately Monochrome films, and ones that were monochrome because of when they were made, because of the light and shadow effects. Ebert also protested censorship in the name of Avoid the Dreaded G Rating or avoiding the dreaded X/NC-17 rating. He advocated for years for a properly trademarked A rating to replace X since that sounds more respectable, and basically called out the MPAA for trying to enforce American morality from behind the veneer of arbitrary letterings. (He'd hoped NC-17 would become a respectable alternative, and was disappointed when it didn't, thanks in no small part to the failure of Showgirls.) He was critical of what he saw as an overuse of 3D technology in movies.
He was screenwriter for a Cult Classic film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Since that film was released in 1970, this hasn't affected his stature as a critic much. He made fun of it himself, but said he was proud of it regardless.
He gained a bit of flak from the gamer community when he declared video games not to be an art form, but he eventually came around and at least decided he's not in a position to judge them (although, despite popular opinion to the contrary, he has been known to play them). Despite that episode, he was considered as the most One of Us of major critics, as he admired Japanese animated film and had an incredible knowledge of science fiction, which was among his favorite genres. While he claimed ignorance to a lot of TV shows due to his heavy schedule of writing and watching films, he found time to become a fan of the WWE (having found a fascination with wrestling after viewing Beyond the Mat), South Park, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. (During their 1979 review of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Gene suggested that he might not have cared about the characters since he wasn't a fan of the show. Roger said that he WAS a fan and he didn't care about them as presented in this film). Heck, he even gave The Nostalgia Critic his due after seeing his tribute video to Siskel and him via a Twitter message (Nostalgia Critic creator Doug Walker was so thrilled, he printed and framed it). Ebert also had a fondness of other film analysis and criticism, such as Tim Dirk's Filmsite.org (which Ebert frequently quoted) and RedLetterMedia; of the Revenge of the Sith review, Ebert stated: "I was pretty much sure I didn't have it with me to endure another review of [Revenge of the Sith.] Mr. Plinkett demonstrates to me that I was mistaken." This is especially interesting considering that said review criticized critics, specifically naming Ebert, who gave a free pass to George Lucas based on prior successes and not his recent output of work.
All his reviews are available on his website. The website of his 2011 show can be found here and there's an archive of the old Siskel & Ebert episodes here. His own life was brought to the screen in the 2014 documentary Life Itself.
Ebert's final public statement, in a blog post titled "A leave of presence," was: "I'll see you at the movies." Thumbs up.
Films he really liked:
Films he really hated:
Trope Namer for:
Tropes used or discussed in Ebert's works:
- One of only two critics to like Speed 2: Cruise Control (the other being Gene Siskel) on Rotten Tomatoes and the only one not to like Brazil. Additionally, he gave The Godfather, Part II three stars, his lowest "good movie" rating, but later included it on his list of Great Movies, though while still standing by his original rating.
- On the other hand, to an aspiring indie director who was disheartened because of a negative review his previous film had received (not from Ebert), he pointed out that the film's average IMDb rating of 8.8 actually gave it a higher overall score than such films as Casablanca (8.6) and Star Wars (8.7). Ebert encouraged him to consider that maybe 8.8 wasn't so bad after all.
- Animation Age Ghetto: Highly disliked it.From his review of Ratatouille: "This is clearly one of the year's best films. Every time an animated film is successful, you have to read all over again about how animation isn't 'just for children' but 'for the whole family,' and 'even for adults going on their own.' No kidding!"
- Big Anime Eyes: Here's what Ebert has to say about anime eyes.
- Broke the Rating Scale:
- Ebert occasionally gave out zero-star ratings. These differed from his occasional "no-star rating" ratings in that to earn zero stars, a movie had to be (1) bad and (2) offend his moral sensibilities in some way, while a no-star rating means that the film is bizarre in some way such that he feels he can't properly assess the quality of the film. This is why The Human Centipede II got zero stars (as opposed to the first movie, which got no rating) and why the original version of Death Race got zero stars vs. the remake's half-star even though Ebert admitted that he felt the former was more competently made.
- He sometimes didn't give a rating at all.
- From his review of Pink Flamingos:Ebert: Note: I am not giving a star rating to Pink Flamingos, because stars simply seem not to apply. It should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object.Ebert: I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine.
- Catch-Phrase: "See you at the movies." It was also his sign-off words for his last essay.
- Comically Missing the Point: Ebert frequently referenced a reader who once wrote him that he enjoyed The Third Man, except for the zither music, apparently missing the film's deliberate Soundtrack Dissonance.
- Deadpan Snarker: His sarcasm could be particularly sharp.
- Dissimile: "'Charlie's Angels is like the trailer for a video game movie, lacking only the video game, and the movie."
- Four Point Scale: Following the Sun-Times editorial policy, Ebert assigned his movie reviews four-star ratings, but often commented on the limitations of the system, such as in his blog post "You Give Out Too Many Stars." He notes that his reviews do tend to skew positive, and that he considered 2.5 stars to be a pan. He also wrote a lengthy series of appreciations of Great Movies, all of which were given four stars. That said, he never hesitated to award low marks to bad movies, though for one to earn zero stars, he had to consider it not just bad but somehow immoral.
- Insult to Rocks:
"This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels."
- Ebert's review for Tom Green's Freddy Got Fingered is as follows:
- And A Lot Like Love: "To call A Lot Like Love dead in the water is an insult to water."
- And The Spirit: "To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material."
- And, of course, The Village: "Eventually the secret of Those, etc., is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes."
- Of Battle: Los Angeles, he said: "Here's a science-fiction film that's an insult to the words 'science' and 'fiction,' and the hyphen in between them."
- His G.I. Joe: Retaliation review reads: "To say G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a video game for the big screen is to insult a number of video games that are far more creative, challenging and better-looking." Mr. Ebert never was a fan of video games, either.
- Lets See YOU Do Better:
- The best known example of Ebert's law that actually involves Ebert himself comes from a review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Star Rob Schneider took offense to an article by Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, pointing out that several major studios turned down the chance to finance the year's Best Picture nominees while financing a sequel to a crude sex comedy. After reading it, he took out a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter and called Goldstein a "hack" because he had never won a Pulitzer Prize. In Ebert's review of the film, he taunted Schneider and said that he himself actually did win the Pulitzer, and thus by Schnider's criteria he was fully qualified to tell Schneider that "your movie sucks". The story took an unexpected turn after several back-and-forth barbs in the press. After one of Ebert's cancer surgeries, Schneider sent Ebert flowers and a "get well" card signed "Your Least Favorite Movie Star, Rob Schneider". Ebert conceded that while Schneider may make bad movies, he's a good man. Aww.
- Roger Ebert himself is an Inverted Trope of this; he's a revered, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, but his actual filmography is something else.
- No Animals Were Harmed:"I am informed that 5,000 cockroaches were used in the filming of Joe's Apartment. That depresses me, but not as much as the news that none of them were harmed during the production."
- Overly Narrow Superlative: In his review of the movie Leaves of Grass, he calls it "the most intelligent, philosophical and poetic film I can imagine that involves five murders in the marijuana-dealing community of Oklahoma and includes John Prine singing 'Illegal Smile.'"
- Poe's Law:
- Ebert admitted that the paradox is true of all satire, to some extent. In order to poke fun at something, you first have to play it straight, and unless you beat your audience over the head with the point that you really don't agree with what you're depicting, there's always going to be someone who takes you seriously.
- Ebert went political and wrote a blog post giving a statement of creationist beliefs, with the intention of making a point about people's inability to recognize irony. While many people did see the satire, a significant number of readers either thought he was being serious or assumed the site had been hacked. PZ Myers criticized the article, pointing out that when there are so many people making the same claims without irony, the joke becomes undetectable to anyone who doesn't already know Ebert's stance on the issue.
- Ebert records in his biography that after producing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an infamously over-the-top parody of sexploitation films, he and Russ Meyer met the Sex Pistols, and were nonplussed when Johnny Rotten said he admired the film because it was so true to life.
- Positive Discrimination: Was very much not a fan. When an audience member at a screening of Better Luck Tomorrow asked director Justin Lin if it was irresponsible of him to portray other Asian-Americans in such a negative light, Ebert angrily stood up and said (paraphrased) "Nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, 'How could you do this to your people?'"
- Quotes Fit for a Trailer: Ebert observed in Ebert's Glossary of Movie Terms that this is apparently the only reason a character ever exclaims "This just keeps getting better and better!"
- Rant-Inducing Slight: Filmmakers invoking Not Screened for Critics as a defense of their work was a sore point for Ebert. Ebert's responses to Kevin Smith and Rob Schneider are two classic examples of this, and from 2005 to 2006, he instituted the "Wagging Finger Of Shame" for all movies that were not screened for critics (It was discontinued when Ebert realized Hollywood wasn't taking the "Wagging Finger Of Shame" seriously.)
- Reality Is Unrealistic:
- When reviewing the 1998 remake of Psycho he complained of the evident electronically tweaked voice of the cop to make it sound unusually deep for effect. After someone wrote to him in the "Questions for the Movie Answer Man" column correcting him, he had to add a footnote to later versions of the review saying "I was wrong: that's James Remar's real voice."
- His original review of Walk the Line was under the impression that a) Joaquin Phoenix was lip-synching to Johnny Cash's music, as he felt it was too uncanny to be Phoenix and b) Johnny Cash proposing to June Carter mid-song was a Hollywood fabrication, although one that Ebert liked anyway. To his astonishment, he learned through the credits that Phoenix did indeed do his own singing, and through responses to the Movie Answer Man, that Cash proposed to Carter as depicted in the film, which was then amended in the review.
- In his scathing review of notorious flop Heaven's Gate, he calls out as ridiculous the scene where Christopher Walken's character, trapped in a burning cabin that's under siege by the bad guys, writes a farewell letter to his friends. While Heaven's Gate was a heavily fictionalized version of the "Johnson County War", this scene actually happened in Real Life.
- Review Ironic Echo: He sometimes used the dialogue or title from a movie against them when he really disliked it.
- "'This sucks on so many levels.' — Dialogue from Jason X. Rare for a movie to so frankly describe itself."
- From his review of The Last Airbender: review: "I close with the hope that the title proves prophetic."
- "Dear God is the kind of movie where you walk out repeating the title."
- "All I want for Christmas is to never see All I Want for Christmas again."
- "Oh no, not You Again."
- "I know this all sounds so stupid and offensive and unbelievably amateurish that it's hard to believe, but... Why Would I Lie?
- Sci Fi Ghetto: Disliked this view, especially as a fervent fan of the genre; he noted that he reviewed movies based on both their artistic worth and how much he thought their intended audience would enjoy them.
- Scenery Porn: Ebert was willing to give high scores to movies solely for being visually impressive and creative, even if their stories may be lacking. Examples include TRON, The Matrix, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the latter of which he stated in the review how much he loves this trope:I have a love of astonishing sights, of films that show me landscapes and cityscapes that exist only in the imagination.
- Self-Deprecation: At a tribute to the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, Ebert gamely read Royko's snarky review of Ebert's screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
- Smoking Is Cool: As he put it in his commentary for Casablanca, "I don't approve of smoking, except in the movies". (He was referring to their effectiveness in providing a sense of action during "quiet" moments of characters talking or thinking.)
- So Bad, It's Good: He gave movies like this 1-star, as opposed to zero-star ratings, which he reserved for films either so bad they were terrible or which morally offended him with racism or voyeuristic violence. This means his shit-list of films given zero-stars is not as fun to watch as you might think, since it is composed almost entirely of truly awful films mixed with soul-destroying Gorn.
- Sophisticated as Hell: Despite his somewhat highbrow image, he could mix it up with lowbrow language. See the page quotation, for instance.
- Strawman Has a Point: Ebert's review of The Life of David Gale, which is a different type of this trope wherein the movie's central characters go so ridiculously far to show that their position is right, you cannot help but be disgusted with them. He also provides the page quotation for this trope, referring to I Am Sam.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: As indicated by his evisceration of the likes of Robocop 2 and Kick-Ass, Ebert despised films that turned children into psychopaths or gleeful killers, with exceptions including Orphan and Hanna where there were story-baked reasons for their violent children beyond exploitation.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: With Gene Siskel, which was a big part of what made their eponymous show so enjoyable to watch. See these outtakes for instance. In this blog post Ebert reminisces fondly on how much they enjoyed insulting each other. After a while they practically became Like an Old Married Couple.Siskel: [Ebert] may be an asshole, but he's my asshole.
- Volleying Insults: A war of words erupted between The Brown Bunny director Vincent Gallo and Ebert, with Ebert writing that The Brown Bunny was the worst film in the history of Cannes, and Gallo retorting by calling Ebert a "fat pig with the physique of a slave trader." Ebert then responded, paraphrasing a statement attributed to Winston Churchill: "One day I will be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny." Gallo then claimed to have put a hex on Ebert's colon, cursing the critic with cancer. Ebert then replied that watching a video of his colonoscopy had been more entertaining than watching The Brown Bunny. note
- Willing Suspension of Disbelief: "I know full well I'm expected to Suspend My Disbelief. Unfortunately, my disbelief is very heavy, and during Ocean's Thirteen, the suspension cable snapped."
- Worst News Judgment Ever: He noted with amusement in his review of Never Been Kissed that the film's portrayal of journalists at the Chicago Sun-Times wasn't entirely accurate:"Josie's adventures in high school are monitored at the Sun-Times through a remarkable invention, a brooch that contains a miniature TV camera and transmits everything she sees back to the office. We do not actually have such technology at the Sun-Times, and thank heavens, or my editors would have had to suffer through "Baby Geniuses.'' [...] Apparently at both papers the way to get a big salary and an office is to devote thousands of dollars and weeks of time to an assignment where you hardly ever write anything."
- "...And until next time, the balcony is closed."