Roger Ebert: A Life in the Movies

FROM DECEMBER 2005: He was an eager young man fresh from Urbana when he started reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun-Times more than three decades ago. His intervening years have featured unimagined success, abiding friendships, too much booze (for a time), the death of a colleague, bouts with cancer, and (rather late) lasting love. His passion for film has made Ebert a bigger star than many of the people he writes about.

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A Star Is Born

Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, an adored only child in a modest house in Urbana, Illinois, Roger Ebert enjoyed a childhood that seemed lifted from the pages of The Saturday Evening Post—the rare dinners out at Steak n Shake; elementary school at St. Mary’s; serving as an altar boy; secondary school at Urbana High, his parents’ alma mater. Television came late to Urbana, and Ebert instead found newspapers and books; he calls the latter his “lifelong consolation.”

Neither of his parents had gone to college, but they both encouraged their son’s bookishness. His father, Walter, worked at the university as an electrician. He was determined that Roger not follow him into his trade: “I was over at the English building working today,” Walter told his son, “and I saw the professors with their feet up on their desks, smoking their pipes and reading their books. Boy, that’s the job for you.” His mother, Annabel, grew up on a farm and worked most of her life as a bookkeeper. She was tiny and always wore a suit or a dress.

As a boy, Ebert was especially close to his mother’s sister, Martha, a nurse who never married and who loved movies. He remembers her taking him to see such adult fare as A Star Is Born and I Want to Live. Ebert grew to resemble Martha so strongly that, his friend Sally Sinden says, “if you put a V-neck sweater on her and gave her a short haircut and a pair of round glasses,” they would have looked exactly alike.

In grade school Roger published the Washington Street News, named for the street where he lived; in high school he published a science fiction fanzine and was the editor in chief of the school newspaper and the president of his senior class. He had become enamored with the novelist Thomas Wolfe and wanted to go to Harvard as Wolfe had, but his father said the family could not afford it. “You just thank your lucky stars that you were born in Urbana,” Walter told him, “because if you were born in Bloomington, you’d be going to Normal [now Illinois State University].”

Staying home and going to the University of Illinois meant that Ebert could continue to make extra money—less than a dollar an hour—at The News-Gazette in Champaign, where, during high school, he had held a job as a bylined reporter working 25 to 30 hours a week. “They hired you to turn out lots of copy real fast,” Ebert recalls.

Shortly before Walter Ebert, a smoker, died of lung cancer in 1960, Roger—still a high-school senior—beat out adults by winning first place in the Illinois Associated Press sportswriting contest. His father, Ebert says, knew that his son was on his way. “I’ve never seen anybody grow up as fast as he did when his father died,” recalls Betsy Hendrick, who worked with Ebert on The News-Gazette. He also started to gain weight.

Ebert continued to work at The News-Gazette, but in the end he hitched his star to The Daily Illini, becoming a general columnist, then night editor, news editor, and editor in chief his senior year, 1963-64. His colleagues remember in near reverential terms the paper that Ebert put out after John Kennedy’s assassination. William Nack, the sports editor under Ebert, says that a veteran journalist “could not have put out a better paper.”

After college, Ebert applied to become an intern to James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. In a letter of rejection, Reston, himself a graduate of the University of Illinois, wrote, “I have decided . . . to hire a young man from Harvard.”

Pulp Fiction

In 1968, The Wall Street Journal published a letter from Ebert praising the director Russ Meyer, whose soft-porn movies—Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, for example—were widely held in low regard. The men became friends. Always looking for lively talent, Meyer talked to Ebert about writing the script for his next movie. Ebert, then 26, did not accept the offer. Besides, he wrote Dan Curley, he had qualms about working with “the king of the nudies. . . . It would be unwise to get mixed up with movies at that level.”

In January 1969, Ebert had failed his physical for the draft (at 206 pounds he was nine pounds overweight) and kept reviewing. The next month, without disclosing their friendship, Ebert gave Meyer’s movie Vixen three stars and called Meyer the “skin flick” genre’s “only artist.”

Several months later, when Meyer was signed to make his first major studio film, Ebert accepted a $15,000 offer to write the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, about a female rock-‘n’-roll band struggling to make it in Hollywood. He took a leave from the Sun-Times and moved to Hollywood.

Connie Zonka has a frank explanation for Ebert’s attraction to Meyer, who died last year, and his movies: “Roger was crazy about women with big tits,” she says, “and Russ Meyer filmed women with big tits.” Every morning Meyer would pick Ebert up at the Sunset Marquis and drive him to the 20th Century Fox lot, where he was expected to write nonstop. “When Russ didn’t hear the typewriter, he’d say, ‘What’s the matter?’” Ebert recalls. “Russ seemed to believe that typing and writing were the same thing.” Meyer’s biographer, Jimmy McDonough, wrote in Big Bosoms and Square Jaws that Ebert required “good booze and good food . . . [and] at the end of the week he would have to have a girl with outrageous proportions.” McDonough claims that Meyer clamped down on the trysts until the script was completed. Ebert finished it in six weeks. (In the book, Ebert contends, “I did not require a girl at the end of every week, nor, for that matter, did I get one.”)

Later, writing in the highbrow magazine Film Comment, Ebert claimed that the X-rated Dolls, which was released in 1970, was “a satire of Hollywood conventions.” His colleagues were not impressed: “A cesspool on film,” wrote Gene Siskel (Ebert recalls that Meyer “offered to throw Gene out of [a] hotel window”). Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic’s critic and a man whom Ebert admired, called it “utter garbage.”

Ebert’s friends claim that he shrugged off the bad reviews, but, according to McDonough, he was feeling rejected until Meyer came to Chicago with Edy Williams, who was both his third wife and the movie’s star. They took Ebert to the Roosevelt Theater in the Loop, “where the trio watched the picture with a live audience. When the crowd went wild, Roger felt redeemed.”

Today, Ebert calls Dolls a “cult classic” and boasts that it has been shown at Oxford and Harvard. He claims that every time he goes to the Sundance Film Festival, some director praises the movie. Mary Knoblauch, though, says she suspects that Ebert regrets having written it.

Jim Hoge told Ebert that he had to choose between reviewing movies and writing them, and he chose reviewing. Still, between 1974 and 1979, Ebert contributed to five more Meyer projects; only one, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens, which Ebert says he wrote in five days, was ever produced. He later told an interviewer for Playboy, “I don’t believe that a film critic has any business having his screenplays on the desks at the studios.” Today, he clarifies: those five projects were all done as independents, without studio backing. He did explore one more big-studio production, however. In 1978, he worked on what he and Meyer hoped would be a 20th Century Fox feature about the band the Sex Pistols. The band’s manager, who was to be the movie’s producer, had seen Dolls 150 times, and Ebert and Meyer went to London to meet the Sex Pistols’ stars, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. “They actually started shooting on that movie,” Ebert recalls, “before the Sex Pistols management went broke and the plug was pulled.”



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