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Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker Remembers Roger Ebert

Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker Remembers Roger Ebert

At the end of last week, in the wake of Roger Ebert’s death, countless tributes poured from the film critic community. Ebert’s influence, however, extended beyond his peer and had a major impact on the film industry at large. To complement the Ebert reminiscences by film critics gathered on Criticwire (along with a roundup of obituaries), we reached out to filmmakers, distributors, publicists and others from the indie world for their own memories of Ebert. This one comes from Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. –The Editors
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the
I thought that love would last forever,
I was wrong.” W.H. Auden

Roger Ebert. Journalist. Film critic. Philosopher. Humorist. Poet of the people. Raconteur. Friend of the artist (make that all artists). Populist intellectual. Humble. Fearless.

So much to say, so many stories to tell.

My colleague Tom Bernard eloquently told me the other day why Roger Ebert was probably the most popular and influential film critic of all time. When Roger was young he had a driving curiosity, which later became a relentless pursuit, of the idea that movies can explain the complexity of the world to us AND can also show us who we are as individual human beings. Roger proved the capacity of the power of film over and over again in simple words we can all understand. This is why he was a savior to so many filmmakers everywhere, from big Hollywood names to the no budget independents. People all over the world look at movies in a bolder way because of him. His reviews gave subjects like civil rights, social justice and politics an extra clear eyed dimension.

When Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) was invited to Ebertfest following his Oscar win last year, he said to me, “You don’t understand how cool it is to be invited there. Roger Ebert is more famous in my country than I am.”

My relationship with Roger (I met him when I was 17, becoming friends decades later) was entirely based on movies and literature. I don’t think I ever had an exchange with him about anything else (up to as recently as a week and a half ago).

His tireless work ethic is the stuff of American legend. Spending hours with him in Champaign, Illinois in the middle of the night at the local Steak N’ Shake, I felt like I was hanging out with Ben Hecht or Eric Hoffer.

His intellect was staggering. One of my favorite stories is when he was interviewing Peter O’ Toole on stage at the Telluride Film Festival. O’Toole was being testy and made it clear he had very low regard for film journalists who “interrogated” him as Roger was doing. At one point, O’Toole, talking about the influence on his life of major poets like Yeats, paused and said, “but, of course, you film interviewers would never know about such things.” Roger squinted a little, was about to say something, stopped himself, then asked O’Toole the next question. A few minutes later, Roger took a big pause, turned to O’Toole and proceeded to recite perfectly and at great length an entire poem by W.B. Yeats. He finished and flashed O’Toole a big smile. Following the audience ovation, from that point forward, a warmer Peter O’Toole treated Roger Ebert as his equal.

But it is in the last 11 years of his life that we all agree Roger became an important inspirational public figure. He looked death squarely in the face and took him on, by using new technology to speak out, uniting the world in sharing movies and ideas with people of all ages. In his final years not only did he become the youngest and most forward thinking voice in the room, but as a bonus he became an even stronger writer, achieving a depth of emotion, irony, and humor we had not seen before. We also have to thank and celebrate his wife Chaz for the major role she has played in Roger’s burst of energy and lifeline. It would not have happened without her.

To those of us who count ourselves as his friends (and we are many, many) words cannot express the magnitude of our loss. Both personally and professionally, I can think of no public figure who has ever meant more to me.

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