By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette — Just as it should have been, the death of Pulitzer prize-winning movie critic Roger Ebert was announced first in the Chicago Sun-Times, the daily newspaper for which he wrote for more than four decades. Of course, this being the era of digital reporting, the paper’s website got the scoop.
But Roger wouldn’t have cared about that. He embraced the new writing and reporting technology with everything he had. He believed in the future of newspapers regardless of the way people read them.
Ebert, from Urbana, Ill., wrote his last column on April 3, literally 46 years to the day that he began working for the Sun-Times. Even though Roger was 70 years old, the hopeful column was full of the promise of youth. He wrote about new plans for his hugely popular website, about the film festival in his hometown, and about the recurrence of the cancer that would end his life a day later.
Ebert, and his PBS and syndicated movie reviewing partner Gene Siskel of the competing Chicago Tribune, took film criticism into a new area when they sparred on their popular television show, giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down to new movies. Eventually, Ebert would appear on television for 31 years, until the cancer that was first diagnosed in 2002 silenced his voice.
I’ve known Roger since the mid-1990s, when he, upon seeing my press credentials, asked me how far Buffalo was from Toronto after he sat a couple of seats away from me in a nearly empty balcony theater space of the old Uptown 3 during the closing days of the Toronto International Film Festival. I told him that Buffalo and Niagara Falls were just an easy hour-and-a-half ride down the Queen Elizabeth Way. We then discussed WNY, Chicago, and the movies we had seen at the festival.
Over the years, we talked many times at different gatherings, at either movie junkets or film festivals. Of course, the onset of email made communicating with him ongoing.
I hadn’t seen Roger for quite a while, when I was able to chat with him and is wife Chaz after a morning press screening for the Chicago Film Festival at the Lake Avenue Screening room in Chicago in 2010. Chaz, as always, was charming and exuberant.
The cancer that would take Roger’s life had caused his vocal cords and jaw to be removed. I was saddened by his condition, but that morning he was as smart and as funny as ever. I had an old VHS tape to give him. It featured a one-hour cable TV show about movie junkets in which Roger gave some commentary. He had never seen the finished program. That autumn morning in Chicago, we “talked” for about a half-hour after the screening. Roger would write his responses and comments in a small notebook, and then he would hold it up for me to see what he wrote. Chaz filled in the blanks.
Last November, Roger helped make my life a media circus, which I enjoyed, when he published on his website a column I wrote about the new owner of a local weekly, the Niagara Falls Reporter, refusing to publish my movie reviews if I wrote about films that featured strong women characters. The column’s instant international celebrity amazed everyone. Within 24-hours it had reached 50,000 original hits and the attention went through the roof.
The column was shared all over the web and eventually became a Twitter and Facebook sensation. Hundreds of websites picked up the story. Roger was constantly in touch with me with updates. He was thrilled. And I was flown to New York City to appear live in-studio on the “CBS Saturday Morning” news program to discuss the censorship controversy. After I appeared on the show, Roger sent me an email that read: “You’re very good. Articulate. I’m tweeting and facebooking.” The column is still receiving hits on the web. Its worldwide success led to my writing movie reviews for this newspaper.
In 1975, Roger was the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. He has written scores of books about motion pictures, including his “Great Movies” series, as well as an hilarious compilation work called “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.” He even published a rice cooker cookbook. He loved going to England to stroll around churchyards and parks. And he wrote a book about that, too. It’s called “The Perfect London Walk.”
Roger’s newspaper opinions about movies were his lifeblood, and they were always highly readable and wonderfully entertaining. After he lost his voice and could no longer appear on television or on the radio, he was still able to keep writing his reviews. Now too, his writing is silent. He will be greatly missed.Michael Calleri reviews movies for Night & Day. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.