The great journalists tower over their professions by the virtue of their ability and their charisma. Roger Ebert, who died on Thursday at the age of 70, did that in film criticism.
Ebert set a high bar for any film critic. He clearly loved all kinds of movies — good, bad and ugly. But he was never a sycophant. He tried to give artists the benefit of the doubt and had no patience for those film makers who tried first to exploit their audiences. He stood for something in his craft. Like the directors and actors he praised over the years, Ebert remained independent at all times.
There are two true measures of how beloved Ebert was. First,he thrived, even flourished, on his own after the death of his equally revered television partner, Gene Siskel. Siskel and Ebert popularized the “two-thumbs-up” accolade. There was no higher compliment to a movie than to receive their emphatic seal of approval. When Siskel passed, many feared that the heart and soul had been ripped out of the partnership and the show would suffer a steep decline in quality and popularity.
But those naysayers underestimated Ebert’s grit, devotion and sheer comfort with the art of reviewing films on TV. Ebert survived the crisis and went on to establish himself a solo reviewer, along with the critics who filled Siskel’s seat.
Ebert was a journalist. He wasn’t simply a Hollywood agent at a word processor. He didn’t forget his journalistic principles of integrity, honesty and thoroughness. He was also a masterful storyteller, as a reviewer, in his own right.
The other way that you could see that Ebert was beloved was by examining the endless tributes from ordinary fans — not Hollywood stars — on social media. I couldn’t count all of the kind words that his fans offered on Facebook and Twitter. It was impressive. Ebert would have loved the vote of confidence.
Roger Ebert will be sorely missed.