When Anthony Bourdain was in town last summer taping a Chicago-themed episode of his Travel Channel show “The Layover,” he asked various people, including me, to name the quintessential Chicagoan, and a consensus quickly emerged.
The answer wasn't Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan, who both always seemed more in Chicago than of Chicago. It wasn't Cubs-going actors such as Jim Belushi, Vince Vaughn or John Cusack. It wasn't musical superstars such as Jennifer Hudson, Kanye West, Billy Corgan or (shudder the thought) R. Kelly. It wasn't ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley or current Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
It was Roger Ebert.
My gut reaction to Bourdain's poll result was “Of course.” Yours may be too. That answer just feels right.
Yet let's take a step back and consider this: Chicago self-identifies as a gritty, approachable, no-nonsense city — “big shoulders” and all that.
Ebert, who died Thursday at age 70 after a long cancer battle, was a film critic, and our society views critics as being about as far from “one of us” as one can get. Critics are snooty and elitist and doing something that almost anyone with an Internet connection now thinks he or she could do better.
And Ebert, though often embraced by Hollywood, took his most memorable critical stands on behalf of art films (such as “My Dinner With Andre” and the almost-four-hour version of “Once Upon a Time in America”) and documentaries (“Hoop Dreams”), movies that in their lifetimes grossed less than what “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” made in its opening midnight showings on a Wednesday.
Ebert called “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” “a horrible experience of unbearable length.”
His best movie of 2011 was the Iranian drama “A Separation.”
Yet Ebert was The Man, the guy we all related to and respected, a down-to-earth populist who just happened to have more money and fame than your average bear.
Bourdain summed up Ebert's appeal in an email Thursday: “He was never a snob. He loved — truly loved — pleasures high and low. He had impeccable taste in films, in bars, in friends. … His Twitter feed was invaluable. He had an acute sense of social justice. He was loyal to great saloons — even long after he quit drinking. Like Chicago itself, he had a low threshold for (baloney).”
As many Chicagoans did, I first encountered Ebert and his TV sparring partner, Gene Siskel, in the Sun-Times and Tribune, respectively, but I grew to “know” them over the course of their various movie-reviewing shows: the short-lived “Opening Soon … at a Theater Near You,” followed by the more successful “Sneak Previews,” “At the Movies” and “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies” (later shortened to “Siskel & Ebert”).
So much has been written and said about their unlikely success that I'll keep it simple: They were intelligent, good-humored, regular-looking guys arguing about movies with a passion that was infectious, all while revealing advance film clips before such things had become ubiquitous.
Siskel was the more aggressive — and arguably more effective — debater: My mental picture of them is the lanky Siskel pitching forward and pointing and Ebert leaning back with his arms outstretched in a sort of “Gimme a break” pose.
But, no offense to the late, whip-smart Siskel, Ebert was The Writer of the pair, the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism (in 1975) and someone whose prose could both sing and sound remarkably like he talked. Ebert wrote a lot, and he wrote fast, and some of the pieces did feel tossed-off, but many others surprised you with his insights and eloquence.
Back before major daily newspapers started their massive retrenchment, most were employing two — or in The New York Times' case, three — full-time film critics to handle the ever-proliferating volume of movies coming out of Hollywood and the indie/international film scenes. But at the Sun-Times, Ebert was reviewing just about every major release every single week. A freelancer or other staffer picked up a stray review here and there, but if a movie was going to be part of the national discussion, Ebert would be the one weighing in on it.
This was while he was preparing for and taping weekly TV shows and making the rounds of talk shows and other public arenas that demanded a celebrity of his stature.
Ebert also continued interviewing the significant filmmakers and actors who came to town, and he covered film festivals — which were often grueling if also stimulating — until he physically couldn't. When I started covering the Sundance Film Festival in the late 1990s, before all of our stories were available online, I would call the Tribune each morning to ask, “What did Roger have today?” He had a natural advantage because all of the publicists wanted him to write about their films and talent, but Ebert not only conducted the key interviews but also attended every newsworthy screening while finding time to file daily reports.
I remember hearing of one big-newspaper critic who never descended from a mountain resort during the festival, instead arranging for the movies to be screened privately. Ebert was a fixture at the public screenings, approachable to moviegoers who were excited to see him, completely serious when it came to dealing with the films.
Ebert also was a collegial presence in the downtown Chicago screening room where movies were previewed for critics, though you knew not to take his back-corner seat by the door, or either of the two in front of it. He'd banter before, after and on rare occasions during movies. In 1997's “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery,” after Mike Myers' spoofy spy declared, “It's my happening, baby, and it freaks me out!” Ebert erupted in the screening room, “I wrote that!” Myers had lifted the line from Ebert's “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970) script for director Russ Meyer.
Over the years I became friendly with Roger but never lost sight of the fact that he was intent on beating me whenever we were going head-to-head. He often did.
And when I wrote a book about the controversy over eating force-fed ducks' and geese's fattened livers, “The Foie Gras Wars” (2009), Ebert took the time to read it in advance and to write a blurb for the back cover even though, as I think I mentioned, he had other things going on.
His thyroid cancer hit in 2002, and cancer was discovered in his salivary gland in 2003. His jaw was removed in 2006 — I repeat, 2006. He wasn't able to speak or to eat solid foods after that, despite failed subsequent efforts at reconstructive surgery.
Depression and retreat might seem logical reactions to such setbacks, but Ebert doubled down: resuming his reviewing workload while becoming an extraordinary presence online with his wide-ranging essays on Roger Ebert's Journal (including one reflecting on his speaking/eating loss that made everyone who read it, including myself, cry — more for its wondrous spirit than any overt heartstring-tugging), his beefed-up rogerebert.com website, and the stream of observations, wisecracks, New Yorker cartoon-contest captions and links on his Twitter feed.
People of Ebert's generation aren't supposed to cotton to new technology. He was named 2010's Person of the Year by the Webby Awards, the online world's Oscars. Three years earlier, Forbes magazine declared him the Top Pundit in America.
Did I mention he was a film critic?
Well, who you are is and isn't what you officially do for a living. Ebert wasn't working so hard to prove a point. He worked so hard because that's who he was. Writing was like breathing to him.
No wonder this Champaign-Urbana transplant was the quintessential Chicagoan. We like to think of Chicago as the city that gets things done.
Ebert got things done. He got a whole hell of a lot of things done.
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