On April 3, 2013, the 46th anniversary of his first day as film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert humbly announced that he would be taking a “leave of presence” from the publication. In other words, Ebert intended to step down from the challenging task of consistently writing reviews (he typically wrote close to 300 a year) and instead have guest contributors add their voices and opinions to his film website.
This “leave of presence” was a necessary decision due to an 11-year ongoing battle with cancer that was wearing him down. He promised he would continue writing when possible and also made a point to mention his excitement to return to his hometown of Urbana-Champaign in the coming weeks for the 15th annual Ebertfest, a film festival Ebert hosts, in which he invites guest speakers to discuss their work as directors and actors of limited release films. As far as anyone could tell, Ebert was doing as well as he could be and eagerly preparing for the next phase of his career.
The very next day, April 4th, Roger Ebert passed away at the age of 70.
It was with great difficulty that I wrote the previous statement. As a native of Chicago and a lover of film, Roger Ebert was my first and most important role model. I would wake up early on Saturdays just to catch his latest reviews on “Ebert & Roeper,” the successor to Ebert’s early show, “Sneak Previews,” which inevitably became “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” the program he co-hosted with Chicago Tribune writer and his long-time friend Gene Siskel.
Whether it was a “Two Thumbs Up” review or an unrelenting assault of a box office bomb, Ebert’s reviews were always crafted with a unique wit and charm for which he will be forever admired. Even when he engaged in battle with a filmmaker or actor over the quality of a film, the story typically ended in admirable fashion. After famously making a public statement to Rob Schneider with regards to “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” that “your movie sucks,” Ebert soon began his battle with cancer. One day, he received a gorgeous bouquet on his front doorsteps with a note cheekily signed “Your Least Favorite Movie Star, Rob Schneider.”
In 1975, perhaps the most important year of his life aside from ’79 when he finally gave up the bottle to join Alcoholics Anonymous, Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. Yet while his reviews will forever cement his legacy as a film journalist, Ebert will also be remembered for his humility and compassion. Who else had such a strong following when it came to film criticism? Even with sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic to compete with, Ebert reworked and maintained his website and blog, where he wrote lengthy articles on film, life, love, and the like, many of which fed into his poignant autobiography “Life Itself: A Memoir.” He had on Twitter almost 840,000 followers, and with over 30,000 Tweets, he never stepped down from connecting with the public despite his many hardships.
In 2010, after he lost his voice due to the pressing surgery required to combat the cancer, Ebert made an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show and revealed his new synthesized voice, which helped him communicate with friends as well as his loving wife, Chaz.
Having contemplated the inevitability of his death, Ebert made a powerful statement, one of the most important of his illustrious career.
“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
The departure of Ebert and his wisdom has left a void in both the film world and the world at large. His words inspired a generation of filmmakers and moviegoers alike. Ebert gave audiences the confidence to hold their own opinions on film despite what anyone else might have to say or think.
Years from now, when we look back at the golden age of cinema and weigh the influence and legacy of those many great films, we will owe so much to Ebert for the unyielding love he put into his prolific musings on the medium.
Thank you, Roger Ebert. You led a truly wonderful life.