Roger Ebert: A sharp film scholar with a bar-next-door image

There was always something special about the Siskel-and-Ebert TV shows. They were fine entertainment, with clips, commentary and quick "thumbs up/thumbs down" verdicts. But beyond that surface were two brainy guys who loved movies and weren't so sure about each other. Both died early -- Siskel at 53, Ebert at 70 -- but a documentary offers a fascinating Ebert portrait. It runs on CNN on Jan. 4 and 10; here's the story I sent to papers:


A while back, movies
were mostly a two-coast deal.

They were made on
the West Coast and reviewed on the East Coast. The space in between
had ... well, a lot of theaters and some popcorn farms.

Then two Chicago
guys became the most influential film critics in America. Roger Ebert
and Gene Siskel did it in on a TV show that even had a dog; Some Easterners
accused them of dumbing down.

“They felt they
were reducing films to a 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' situation,”
said Steve James, whose “Life Itself” -- a compelling portrait of
the late Ebert – is now on CNN.

On the surface,
Ebert didn't fit the established image. Unlike Siskel – a
prep-school and Yale grad – he was an electrician's son and a
University of Illinois grad. He wrote for a blue-collar paper, the
Sun-Times; in the Chicago newspaper tradition, he hit the bars at

“He wasn't a film
snob and never became one,” James said. “But over the years, he
had developed an incredible breadth of knowledge.”

Under that
bar-next-door image was a guy who praised the foreign-film masters,
frequented the Cannes Film Festival and – alongside more-popular
films – discovered independent gems.

For his movie, James
included many people whose indie films were championed by Ebert –
Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”), Gregory Nava (“El Norte”),
Werner Herzog (“Nosferatu”), Ava DuVernay (now the “Selma”
director) and even Martin Scorsese, an unknown when Ebert spotted

Still, James omitted
the prime example – his own “Hoop Dreams.” A documentary
following two Chicago basketball kids, it had landed a spot in the
1994 Sundance Film Festival. That's when a publicist asked the
critics to see it.

“He called Gene up
and said it's about basketball, because he knew he was a fan,”
James said. “He told Roger it wasn't just about basketball.”

At the most, James
was hoping for brief newspaper mentions. Instead, Siskel and Ebert
praised the film on the show. Each picked it as the best movie of the
year; Ebert later called it the best of the decade.

Even though they
both lived in Chicago, James only met Ebert a few brief times. (“I
really took to the idea that a critic and a filmmaker should keep
their distance.”) He was surprised to learn that many directors had
developed warm friendships with Ebert, who “felt that wasn't going
to compromise him.”

Then a producer who
read Ebert's book (also called “Life Itself”) suggested a
documentary. “I expected to be showing Roger in a vigorous and
active life ... at screenings and parties,” James said.

The timing was wrong
for that. Fighting cancer, Ebert soon returned for a long hospital
stay; James watched him continue his writing -- “he did seem pretty
cheerful” -- even while facing painful treatment. Mostly, others
provided the rich biographical details.

Ebert was always
gifted, James said, pointing to an elegant college-paper commentary.
He was hired by the Sun-Times in 1966 and a year later, at 25, became
its film critic. In 1975, a public-TV station paired him with Siskel,
the Chicago Tribune critic. Two years later, the show went national;
it would continue in different forms until Siskel's death (at 53,
during brain-cancer surgery) in 1999.

Ebert was 50 when he
married lawyer Chaz Hamnmelsmith, whom he called “the great fact of
my life.” His final 20 years, before his death in 2013, were filled
with stepkids and movies as he conquered life itself.

-- “Life Itself,”
9 and 11 p.m. ET Sunday, CNN

-- Repeats at the
same times Jan. 10