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American journalist, screenwriter and influential film critic Roger Ebert passed away on Thursday. He was seventy years old. He was best known as a film critic for the Chicago Sun Times from 1967 until his death. In 1975, he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. As of 2010 his columns were syndicated to more than 200 newspapers in the United States and abroad. During his lifetime, Ebert published more than twenty books and dozens of collections of reviews.
Born as an only child in Urbana, Illinois to parents Annabel and Walter H. Ebert, he was raised Roman Catholic and attending St. Mary’s Elementary school while serving as an altar boy in Urbana. Ebert’s interest in journalism began at the age of fifteen where he was a sports writer for The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois. His writing career however began with letters to the science fiction fanzines of the era. Ebert became involved in science fiction fandom as he wrote articles for fanzines which included Richard A. Lupoff’s Xero. During his senior year, he was class president and editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper The Echo and in 1958, he won the Illinois High School Association state speech championship in “radio speaking,” an event simulating radio newscasts.
Reminiscing about his early influences in film criticism, Ebert wrote in the 1998 parody collection Mad About the Movies:
“I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad magazine… Mad’s parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin – of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe. Pauline Kaellost it at the movies; I lost it at Mad magazine.”
Ebert completed his high school courses while also taking his first university class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an early entrance student. He graduated from high School in 1960 and continued to take classes at the university where he also worked as a reporter for the The Daily Illini and then served as its editor during his senior year while also continuing to work as a reporter for the News-Gazette. As an undergraduate, he was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and president of the U.S. Student Press Association at Illinois. One of the first movie reviews he ever wrote was a review of La Dolce Vita, published in The Daily Illini in October 1961.
After graduating from the university in 1964, Ebert spent a semester as a master’s student in the department of English there before attending the University of Cape Town on a Rotary fellowship for a year and then returned from Cape Town to his graduate studies at Illinois for two more semesters. After being accepted as a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, he prepared to move. Needing a job to support himself while he worked on his doctorate, he applied to the Chicago Daily News, hoping that, as he had already sold freelance pieces to the newspaper-including an article on the death of writer Brendan Behan-he would be hired by editor Herman Kogan. Instead Kogan referred Ebert to the city editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim Hoge, who hired Ebert as a reporter and feature writer in 1966. While working as a general reporter at the Sun-Times for a year, Ebert attended doctoral classes at the University of Chicago. After movie critic Eleanor Keane left the Sun-Times in April 1967, editor Robert Zonk gave the job to Ebert. Because the load of graduate school and being a film critic proved too much, he left the University of Chicago to focus his energies on reporting.
With Ebert becoming the movie critic for the Sun-Times in 1967, his film critic career began. That same year his first book Illini Century: One Hundred Years of Campus Life was published by the University of Illinois’ press. In 1969, his review of Night of the Living Dead was published in Reader’s Digest.
In 1975, Ebert began a co-hosting a weekly film review television show called Sneak Previews which was locally produced. Three years later Gene Siskel became a co-host when the show was picked up by PBS for national distribution and the rest was history. Going through variations of At the Movies programs, Siskel and Ebert debated and traded humourous barbs while discussing films. They created and trademarked the phrase “Two Thumbs Up” when both hosts gave the same film a positive review. After Siskel’s passing in 1999, Ebert continued the show with Richard Roeper as co-host. In 2005, Ebert became the first film critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and on January 31, 2009, he was made an honorary life member of the Directors Guild of America.
As far as his critical approach to films, Ebert described it as “relative, not absolute”; he reviewed a film for what he felt would be its prospective audience, but always with at least some consideration as to its value as a whole. He awarded four stars to films of the highest quality, and generally a half star to those of the lowest, unless he considered the film to be “artistically inept” or “morally repugnant”, in which case it received no stars. Ebert often made heavy use of mocking sarcasm, especially when reviewing movies he considered bad. Ebert’s reviews were also characterized by what has been called “dry wit” At other times he was direct. Ebert commented on films using his Roman Catholic upbringing as a point of reference, and was critical of films he believed were grossly ignorant of or insulting to Catholicism. He often included personal anecdotes in his reviews when he considered them relevant. He occasionally wrote reviews in the forms of stories, poems, songs,scripts, open letters, or imagined conversations. He also wrote many essays and articles exploring in depth the field of film criticism.
Ebert lived with thyroid cancer from 2002, and in 2006, surgical complications left him unable to speak, but he continued writing in print and online. On April 4th, 2013, Roger Ebert died. According to his wife Chaz, “We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he [Ebert] looked at us, smiled, and passed away.” The closing sentence on his final blog post, two days before his death, said, “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.
Ebert’s death prompted wide reaction from celebrities both in and out of the entertainment industry. President Barack Obama wrote, “Roger was the movies … [he could capture] the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical … The movies won’t be the same without Roger.”
Robert Redford called Ebert “one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression” and said “His personal passion for cinema was boundless, and that is sure to be his legacy for generations to come.”
Oprah Winfrey called Ebert’s death the “end of an era,” as did Steven Spielberg, who also said that Ebert’s “reviews went far deeper than simply thumbs up or thumbs down. He wrote with passion through a real knowledge of film and film history, and in doing so, helped many movies find their audiences… [he] put television criticism on the map.”
Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times said Ebert “was without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic,” Tom Van Riper of Forbes described him as “the most powerful pundit in America,” and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called him “the best known film critic in America.”
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