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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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Easy Rider

When Ebert and Siskel signed with Disney, there was no hiding the obvious conflict of having their paychecks signed by a major studio whose movies they reviewed. At the time, they pointed out that a clause in their contract guaranteed “complete independence and autonomy.” That clause remains in Ebert’s contract. “We have never received a single call from any member of Disney management about any review of a Disney film,” Ebert says.

Nobody offers any evidence, on or off the record, that Ebert has given special treatment to a Disney release. “The reason we haven’t had any accusations of conflicts of interest,” he says, “is because nobody’s ever been able to find one.” Stuart Cleland claims that Ebert does not even notice who makes the films he screens. Still, one reporter says he understands why a purist would find the conflict huge. “How do you work for a company that makes movies and be on their payroll and be a critic and a journalist? How do you write about and criticize that company’s movies? And that of its competitors? How can you say for sure whether you would have said something the same way?”

Ebert points to his “dumping on” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, made by a division of Disney, as recent evidence of his independence.

The other common criticism of Ebert is that he is too easy to please. “For my taste, he’s got the door open a little too wide,” says David Elliott. Laura Emerick, Ebert’s editor at the Sun-Times, thinks that since his bouts with cancer, “he’s more positive in terms of giving films a break.” She has also noticed a soft spot for films that have a redemption story, such as overcoming alcoholism or social injustice.

Ebert has no qualms about having awarded three stars to Adam Sandler’s The Longest Yard, although he admits some pangs of regret when he went to Cannes and saw 25 films “that were really swinging for the fences, and I realized how limited its ambition was.” On the other hand, he says, “when we read books, sometimes we read literature and sometimes we read Barbara Vine.”

“He likes more mainstream movies than I do,” complains the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who adds, “I read French film magazines a lot. His name doesn’t come up”—which is probably just as well for Ebert’s TV ratings. Rosenbaum describes himself as a critic’s critic and Ebert as a critic for the general public. Ebert would be flattered.

The Remains of the Day

At the University of Colorado’s 58th Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Ebert and Andy Ihnatko, the Sun-Times’s tech columnist, sat on a panel entitled How to Tell a Joke. The two made a $20 bet: off the top of his head, Ebert would try to tell ten jokes about masturbation. “Perhaps he is slowing down—he came up a few short. But he had the packed auditorium in stitches,” says William Nack, who was also there.

Ebert still relishes standing on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. When he appears, says De Los Santos, “it always causes a commotion with the fans-people trying to get his attention, to take pictures.”

Yet Ebert is now a couple of generations removed from the people who make culture popular, and increasingly it shows. “What are you doing here?” he asked Dennis Rodman as he approached the red carpet. “Well, I thought I’d come to see the Oscars,” Rodman replied. “Could you introduce us to your date?” Ebert asked. “I am Vivica A. Fox,” she said.

“I was just totally humiliated,” Ebert recalls. “She’s a famous movie star.” He also recently failed to recognize R&B superstar Usher, Aerosmith’s lead singer Steven Tyler, and Tyler’s daughter, the actress Liv Tyler.

Still, John Barron, the editor of the Sun-Times, says that his profit center hasn’t skipped a beat: “Since his illness, Roger’s appetite for work is undiminished.” Early in his career he wrote 125 reviews a year; now he writes 280. “He is always on call,” says Barron, who speaks with awe of Ebert’s writing deadline tributes to Robert Mitchum, who died on July 1, 1997, and Jimmy Stewart, who died the next day. Ebert watches ten movies a week; when he goes to festivals he sees three times as many. He has written more than 30 books. “Just look every week in the Showcase section,” says the Sun-Times celebrities reporter Bill Zwecker, “and it’s Roger, Roger, Roger, Roger, Roger.” Sue Roush, Ebert’s editor at the Universal Press Syndicate, says it is “like he has 20 fingers. He’s like a one-man wire service.”

Friends have heard him say that he plans to give up the television show. “I often would make big announcements like that,” Ebert says, and then lists some of the smaller films that the show has brought to a wide audience—My Dinner with André, Hoop Dreams, The Crying Game, Hotel Rwanda, and March of the Penguins. “I spend most of my time in print and yet much of my influence in print is because I’m on television,” he adds.

Some friends have heard him ruminate about moving to the English countryside to write a novel. “I never hear him talking about that anymore,” says Marsha Jordan of WLS-TV. “I think he’s just too busy.”

Still, his Anglophilia seems more pronounced than ever, and he talked for a time of buying a flat in London. “He’s obsessed,” says his friend Jack Lane, a photographer. “He loves walking; he loves the bookstores of London.” A collaboration in 1985 with Lane as the photographer and Dan Curley as the co-writer resulted in The Perfect London Walk—a charming guide to the writers’ favorite spots, replete with literary and historical references. Curley died shortly after the book appeared, but Ebert would love to write something like it again.

He has taught in the continuing education program at the University of Chicago since 1968. His most recent course was Fassbinder at 60. He reads voraciously—recently Don Quixote and Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, as well as The Golden Bowl (again). He skips episodic television—“I’ve never seen The Sopranos,” he says.

And why give up such a good gig? Norman Mark, an old friend and a former TV critic for the Daily News, has heard Ebert say that he gets paid “six or seven times every time he sees a movie. He’s very proud of that.” Ebert’s reviews are in print in the Sun-Times, on Ebert & Roeper, on WLS-TV, in his anthologies, on his Web site, and through the Universal Press Syndicate they go to more than 250 newspapers.

“I don’t even want to think about the day when he’s not there,” says Laura Emerick, “a very sad day not only for the Sun-Times but for film criticism and the film world in general.” She stops in mid-tribute: “That’s the thing that’s always awed me about Roger. Why does he work so hard?” Emerick, an opera buff, answers her own question: “His job is his Valhalla. This is what makes him happy. I don’t see him ever giving that up.”

Ebert has agreed to write his memoirs for Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House, but with the caveat that he have no contract, no deadline. “I just wanted to sit down and see what happened,” he explains. He plans a series of personal essays-one about Russ Meyer, another about growing up in central Illinois, another about his love affair with London. He has no interest in writing one of those chronological life stories that often close with the end of a career. He sees several chapters remaining in his. 


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