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Saturday, April 06, 2013

Siskel & Ebert - A Tribute

The entry that I am going to be making today is one that is bittersweet.  On one hand, it details one of my favourite Saturday traditions, but on the other hand, it is very sad because both of the men who hosted this program are now deceased, and I’ve come to the conclusion that another part of my childhood is forever gone.

For a lot of kids, Saturday mornings meant that you could watch as many cartoons as you could stomach.  And, I’ll be the first to admit that I myself was one of those kids.

What about Saturday afternoons and Saturday evenings?  What did we do then?

Well, most of us probably went outside for the rest of the day.  And, certainly I was also one of those kids who played outside in the backyard.  But there was also one particular show that aired on Saturdays that the whole family enjoyed watching, and it had to do with the subject of movies.

Let’s face it.  At some point during our day, we’re going to be exposed to dozens of film trailers for upcoming features.  Some of them are animated cartoons, some are action films, some are erotic thrillers, and some of them are creepy, scary, horror movies.  Whatever the genre, there are always a boatload of film critics that will get invited to advance screenings of the movies, and they are paid good money to give the films an honest review.  Sometimes the film absolutely wows them.  Sometimes the film garners a mediocre response.  Sometimes, the film is completely torn apart, ripped to shreds, and are given reviews so scathing, winning a Golden Raspberry Award would actually be less painful!

Of course, film reviews are rather subjective.  Depending on the critics, sometimes they get it absolutely right, and other times, you find them to be complete hacks.  But, that’s part of the joy of being a movie critic.  You’re essentially sharing your own opinions about a certain film with a wide audience, essentially telling them what movies to watch, and simultaneously, which films to avoid like influenza.

Believe me...I know how hard it is to review a film.  When I was in college, I reviewed a few films for my school newspaper, and I found it an incredibly difficult job to do.  I wanted to keep an open mind, but also be somewhat respectful in any criticism that I gave out to avoid looking like a complete jerk.  Try it sometime.  You’ll quickly discover that giving a fair, but honest review to a film is harder than it looks.

In my opinion, the best film critics are the ones who don’t just simply offer their opinions about a film.  They also have the facts or knowledge to back up their claims.  They might do research on other roles that the actors and actresses in the film have done and compare it to the new piece to see if they have fine-tuned their craft.  They might watch the film more than once to make sure that they know it inside and out.  They might even be so passionate about their own opinions that they might get into heated arguments with another critic to prove their point.  And, if they were lucky, their arguments might be convincing enough to sway the opposing critic onto their side!

In the case of these two former film critics, this was certainly the case.  When they agreed with each other, they happily chatted about it, explaining why they felt this way.  But if they had a disagreement, it could get quite heated.  What was interesting was that even though they often battled each other verbally on screen, when the cameras were shut off, the two men had each other’s permanent respect.  When that partnership came to a sudden end in 1999, it was a sad day in the film industry.  And, just a couple of days ago, the other half of that partnership breathed his last breath.

This is the story of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

Although both men were born and raised in the state of Illinois, both had their own distinct career trajectories before they first crossed paths in the 1970s.  Eugene Kal Siskel (b. January 26, 1946) grew up in the Chicago area, having to live with his aunt and uncle after his parents died when he was just ten.  He graduated with a degree in philosophy from Yale University in 1967, and studied writing under the tutelage of John Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.  It was through Hersey that Siskel landed a job writing film reviews at the Chicago Tribune.

Roger Joseph Ebert (b. June 18, 1942) was born and raised in Urbana, Illinois, and his love for journalism began as a sportswriter for The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois.  He was also very interested in writing science fiction fandom, and claimed that he learned everything he needed to know about being a film critic from MAD Magazine!  Maybe that’s why his reviews tended to be a smidgen on the acerbic and sarcastic side at times.

Ebert was a very bright student, taking university level courses at the University of Illinois while finishing up the necessary high school courses needed to earn his diploma.  After graduating from high school in 1960, he continued his studies at the University of Illinois while continuing to work for the News-Gazette as a reporter.  Upon his graduation from Illinois in 1964, he attended the University of Cape Town in South Africa for a year, and had planned to attend the University of Chicago to earn his PhD.  He even took on a job at the Chicago Sun-Times as a writer to support himself while he was taking classes.  But when the newspaper’s film critic left the publication, an opportunity presented itself to Ebert.  It made such an impression that when Ebert was forced to choose between earning a PhD and continuing with the newspaper as its film critic, he decided that being a film critic was more rewarding.

So, how did Siskel and Ebert end up crossing paths?

It all began in 1975, when a television show began airing on PBS, entitled “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You”.  The premise of the show was simple.  Two critics from opposing newspapers would sit down, watch some short movie clips from the newest releases that week, and hash it out.

So, naturally, because the show was taped in Chicago, it made sense to have the hosts of the program be from two rival newspapers.  So, who better to host the show than Siskel of the Tribune, and Ebert from the Sun-Times? 

It was here on this show that the long-associated trademark of Siskel and Ebert was born.  Whenever either critic loved the movie, they would give their approval by holding their thumb in an up position.  When the critic disliked the film, they would stick their thumbs downward.  In a lot of cases, the decisions were split, allowing people to make up their own minds as to whether the film was worth watching.  But in most cases, the thumbs showed the way.  If a movie was excellent, it would get TWO THUMBS UP!

And, well...if a film completely sucked, then it would be TWO THUMBS DOWN!

Of course, the show would have been incredibly dull had both men agreed/disagreed on everything and held hands at the end of every episode singing Kumbaya.  Roger Ebert wrote about his professional relationship with Siskel in a column that he wrote back in 1999, and as you’ll see, it wasn’t exactly sunshine and roses at first.

“We both thought of ourselves as full-service, one-stop film critics. We didn't see why the other one was quite necessary. We had been linked in a Faustian television format that brought us success at the price of autonomy. No sooner had I expressed a verdict on a movie, my verdict, than here came Siskel with the arrogance to say I was wrong, or, for that matter, the condescension to agree with me. It really felt like that. It was not an act. When we disagreed, there was incredulity; when we agreed, there was a kind of relief. In the television biz, they talk about "chemistry." Not a thought was given to our chemistry. We just had it, because from the day the Chicago Tribune made Gene its film critic, we were professional enemies. We never had a single meaningful conversation before we started to work on our TV program. Alone together in an elevator, we would study the numbers changing above the door.”

As time passed, the animosities and personality conflicts between the two men began to transform into a deep and profound friendship.  Sure, Siskel and Ebert maintained their professional rivalry, but their personal relationship together was filled with chemistry and respect.  And, Ebert would later make the following statement in the same 1999 column.

“ one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love".

The two men hosted the program for seven years, and in those seven years, the series changed its name to “Sneak Previews”.  The two men left the program in 1982 following contractual differences with the network that produced the series, and while “Sneak Previews” lasted an additional fourteen years before its cancellation in 1996, it didn’t quite rank as high in the ratings as it once did with Siskel and Ebert at the helm.  The very year that Siskel and Ebert left “Sneak Previews”, they began hosting “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert”, produced by Tribune Entertainment.  They stayed on with the program until 1986, when both of them left following a dispute with Tribune.  Later that year, the duo began their longest-running series yet, with “Siskel & Ebert”, which debuted in syndication on September 13, 1986.

And, it was on “Siskel & Ebert” that some of the duo’s most heated arguments took place.  There was no physical violence of was “Siskel & Ebert”, not Jerry Springer.  But their verbal barbs and raised voices certainly helped keep the show on the air for a dozen years.  Again, when they disagreed, they certainly let everyone know it.  

Just have a look at their 1987 review for “Full Metal Jacket”, in which Siskel loved it, but Ebert hated it.

And, even when they DID agree, they still found a need to argue about it!  Have a look at their review for 1997’s “Boogie Nights” if you like.

But, one thing that they were both was stubborn.  In the twelve years that “Siskel & Ebert ran, there was not a single instance in which Roger Ebert backed down on his opinions.  He might nod and give Siskel a little bit of credit for a point in which he didn’t consider, but he never once changed his mind.

As for Gene Siskel?  Well, there was that one incident back in 1996 when “Broken Arrow” came out in which Roger Ebert’s opinion apparently was strong enough to make Siskel CHANGE HIS MIND!   Don’t believe me?  Have a look for yourself by clicking HERE!  It is definitely something to be seen!

Throughout it all, the partnership of Siskel and Ebert endured, and millions of people counted on hearing their opinions on various films in deciding whether it was worth paying full price for, or waiting until Tuesdays when tickets were only half price.  I’ll even be the first to admit that I’ve made decisions on what movies to watch based on what Siskel & Ebert have said about them.  For the record, I always saw Ebert’s reviews as being slightly more useful than Siskel’s, but I will also say that Siskel did know what he was talking about as well in a lot of cases.

I imagine that a lot of people took Siskel and Ebert’s reviews for granted, expecting that they would be around forever to critique movies well into the twenty-first century.  So, when Gene Siskel was admitted into the hospital in late 1998, we all believed that he would be just fine.  Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.  Gene Siskel was diagnosed with having a brain tumour, and required surgery to have it removed.  He survived that surgery, and for a while, he would host the show with Ebert via telephone.  He did return to the program for a bit, but was forced to leave the show once more to undergo another round of surgery in hopes of getting rid of the tumour for good.  The last show that he and Ebert would host together aired on January 23, 1999, and Siskel had high hopes of returning to the program in the fall, joking that there was no way that he would let Roger have more screen time than he.

Tragically, Siskel never did get to come back.  Less than a month after his final appearance on Siskel & Ebert, Gene Siskel died of complications from a second surgery on February 20, 1999.  He was just 53 years old.

Roger Ebert dedicated the next scheduled show in Gene’s memory, playing old clips and interviews of Gene at his prime.  But even though Gene had passed away, Roger Ebert kept the show running, searching for a new co-host to take over Gene’s spot.  In 2000, film critic Richard Roeper was named as Ebert’s permanent new co-host, and on September 10, 2000, the show was renamed “Ebert & Roeper and the Movies”.  The show’s name was shortened to “Ebert & Roeper” in 2002, and the partnership lasted until 2006.  I will say this.  I remember watching Ebert & Roeper when it first came on, and I’ll definitely say that Ebert and Roeper worked well together.  And, I’m also giving Roeper a lot of credit and praise for taking over Siskel’s spot near flawlessly and giving it his all in his reviews.  But, Ebert & Roeper was no Siskel & Ebert.  The partnership was good...but it was incomparable to Ebert’s previous working relationship with Siskel.

But right around the time that Ebert & Roeper began airing, Ebert was experiencing health issues of his own.  In 2002, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and underwent radiation treatments in order to get rid of the tumours that were developing.  However, complications from these treatments would lead to emergency surgery in 2006, which prevented Ebert from being able to speak properly.  Efforts to reconstruct his jaw bone lead to permanent facial disfigurement, and Ebert was forced to leave the show in 2007.  Roeper remained until the summer of 2008, and following a series of guest co-hosts, the show was permanently canned in 2010.

Although Ebert was unable to give verbal reviews, he continued to do online reviews, and continued writing his column.  And he continued to write until his death two days ago on April 4, 2013, at the age of 70.

With the passing of Roger Ebert, it truly marks the end of an era in the world of film reviews.  There were simply no two reviewers who had as much chemistry and knowledge of the movie industry as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.  With both of them now deceased, future generations will never really know just how influential they were to the film industry.

But you know, I’d like to picture them now the same way that an Internet image that has been floating around cyberspace the last couple of days has done image that is poignant and wonderful at the same time...a real touching tribute to both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert if ever I saw one.

And, to close off this look on Siskel & Ebert, I have one final piece of trivia on both men.

SISKEL TRIVIA:  Gene Siskel loved the 1977 film “Saturday Night Fever” so much that he actually bought the white suit that John Travolta wore in the film at a charity auction!

EBERT TRIVIA:  Though Ebert had stated that 1941’s “Citizen Kane” was his all-time favourite film, he later admitted that his REAL favourite film was 1960’s “La Dolce Vita”, and that his favourite actor and actress were Robert Mitchum and Ingrid Bergman respectively.

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