The film was Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours.” By chance, I sat next to Roger Ebert at the Toronto International Film Festival press screening of it. I had gotten there early (as is my wont) to assure an aisle seat. So had other members of the press who wound up waiting in line almost an hour and a half in sweltering close quarters for a technical snafu to end. Ebert and his wife were allowed into the screening minutes before the screening was to begin, to find their own seats at the last second.
She sat two rows behind us.
I had, until that moment, no idea what were the details of his condition. I knew that cancer had caused radical surgery that ended his ability to eat and speak. But it never occurred to me that breathing itself was as arduous as I discovered that it could be. There was a moment during the film where I was seconds away from getting up to get his wife because the fluid buildup was causing audible distress. It passed with merciful speed, but it was revelatory.
There was a lot about Ebert’s final sufferings you couldn’t know. Not even Chris Jones’ fine cover interview in Esquire could have prepared one for the simple experience of watching a film next to Ebert.
There is nothing wrong with a critic being wrong. It’s only wrong when you can’t admit it. And I had, by then, been very wrong about Ebert’s essential qualities and I was beginning to know it.
Nothing on this earth will ever change my utter loathing of his show with Gene Siskel – its simple-minded thumbsmanship, its squabbling infantilism. Even worse than the show was the puerile foolishness they took to talk shows where their shtick was show business as pure as any showbiz shtick could be.
It was Judith Crist who brought movie reviewing to television. It was Gene Shalit who married it to shtick. Neither demeaned the profession the way Siskel and Ebert’s egregious public petulance did.
So I thought and still do. In the greatest era movie criticism will ever have – where substantive battles were being fought like those whose combatants were Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris – Siskel and Ebert publicly pulled the profession into the sandbox and battled over possession of the red plastic pail.
And yet, and yet...
I have come to understand in my maturity that as understandable as my loathing was – as was that of so many other critics – their act had its uses. When you hear Martin Scorsese (one of the film’s executive producers) in “Life Itself” admit that in a coked-up low point in his life, Siskel and Ebert’s tribute to him at a Toronto International Film Festival brought him back on the road to spiritual and occupational health, you know how often their ghastly act had been turned to good.
Read Ebert’s “Life Itself” in book form to understand the other side of the celebrity that they possessed to such an unprecedented degree among critics. That celebrity, it turned out, wasn’t as dubious as it so often seemed.
I’ve always tried to make it clear in print that it was always Siskel I couldn’t stand at all. Ebert was always the “movie man” to everyone who knew the difference. I once saw Siskel from afar at a film junket (for “Superman II”) actually walk through a hotel ballroom with nose, literally stuck up in the air like Veronica’s butler in some Archie comic book or some third-rate 1930s character actor in a part signifying pointless snobbery.
In “Life Itself” you can see Siskel frolicking in the Playboy Mansion pool. In some of our recollections of life itself, some of us remember that wealthy uber-fan Siskel bought John Travolta’s white suit from “Saturday Night Fever” and wheedled, from Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” a comedy prop Jamie Farr orange juice squeezer from which orange juice flowed through the nostrils.
Ebert, we always knew, used fame differently.
But I’ve come to understand that their act together, however invidious, was indeed as good for the profession as the higher-end polemics of Kael and Sarris. In the words of Adlai Stevenson, “a rising tide lifts all boats” and whatever else their act did, it opened the floodgates for the tide quite nicely.
The only thing of Ebert’s I ever envied was his money, even though I still don’t think God ever intended film critic to be a seven-figure profession.
No one could have envied Ebert’s final years after cancer. And yet none of us, I’d submit – certainly not Ebert at the beginning of his career – could have imagined the genuinely noble role he’d occupy in his own profession when his body left him so little to work with and so much to struggle with every minute of his life.
Has any American newspaper critic used his fame as well, much less better?