Columns > Published on April 5th, 2013

Roger Ebert Dies at 70

Roger Ebert’s death at the age of 70 sparks a number of questions, none of which I am prepared to answer: What was Ebert’s impact on American culture? Was he a great critic? Will his criticism stand the test of time? Will anyone still care what he wrote ten years from now?

To all those questions, I must answer – I dunno.

What I can say is that I am saddened by his passing, though I rarely sought his opinion of any film I cared to see. I rarely seek any critic’s opinion on the films I see; I fashion myself as good a film critic as anyone out there, and frankly I don’t care what anyone else thinks.

But Roger Ebert occupied a particularly central position in American letters. He was by far the most famous film reviewer in the country, if not the world. And on the whole, his taste in movies was pretty damn good. He was far and away better – more sophisticated, funnier, smarter - than his partner on television, the late Gene Siskel. Siskel was strictly middlebrow. He was impressed by the kind of high-minded “important” pictures that come and go without making any kind of dent in the art form. If Siskel liked something, I was usually fairly sure I’d detest it.

But Ebert was something of an oddball in that despite his enormous audience, he wasn’t afraid to like something that was really and truly terrible. He once told an interviewer that he liked both the very good and the very bad and didn’t care much for the stuff in between. That’s my idea of a great critic. He found pleasure in the rotten, value in the schlock. He went to the movies because they were fun, and while he certainly respected fine filmmaking, he wasn’t averse to encouraging his readers and viewers to find pleasure in the nasty and the cheesy - the chance-taking failures that Siskel derided.

Beyond his criticism, Ebert will forever hold a place in my heart for his screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was directed by the magnificent Russ Meyer. Big tits were to Meyer what deep focus was to Orson Welles. That Ebert saw the value in Meyer – enough to collaborate with him – is proof of the impressive taste Ebert brought to bear on the films he reviewed. One of my film professors once described Meyer as “the master of the meaningless cut.” Ebert, I am sure, would know exactly what my prof meant by that. He clearly appreciated Meyer’s talent in a way Siskel never could.

As half of the TV duo, Ebert was partly responsible for that scourge of criticism known as “thumbs up/thumbs down.” It’s crass shorthand for something infinitely more complex. But he made up for it by giving a whole range of lowbrow movies thumbs up. He encouraged people to see as many movies as possible, to find pleasure in unexpected places. God love him for that.

Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert. May heaven turn out to be a plush screening room with an unlimited film library.

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Reedsy | Editors with Marker (Marketplace Editors)| 2024-05

Submitting your manuscript?

Professional editors help your manuscript stand out for the right reasons.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: