When you love something, you stick with it. Roger Ebert was an enthusiast, a man who knew what he loved and was never afraid to scream it from the mountaintops—or the pages of a newspaper, or the glow of a TV screen, or the 140 characters of an expertly crafted tweet. As such, he was ruled by dedication.
Roger Ebert loved his job, so he did it until he died. He was hired as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966 when he was 24 years old and became its film critic the following year when the gig opened up, and he never left the paper. Chicagoans are fiercely loyal, as any casual sports fan can probably tell. But our allegiance to our city and the pride we take in it aren’t exclusive to athletics; we all eat our hot dogs the same (best) way, and we treat any celebrity who doesn’t flee to New York or L.A. like royalty. Ebert could’ve jumped ship at any number of points in his career—when he landed his TV show with Gene Siskel; when he received his Pulitzer, becoming the first film critic to do so; when the Sun-Times was purchased by Rupert Murdoch; when, like so many print outlets these days, it struggled to adapt to the web and the changing face of journalism. But he stayed (at one point penning a scathing letter to sports columnist Jay Mariotti after the latter quit the Sun-Times, telling him “don’t let the door bang you on the ass”). And we loved him for it. He was ours.
When I was 14, I got my first “big” assignment interviewing actress Keisha Castle-Hughes for the KidNews section of the Chicago Tribune. I got to go to a special press screening of Whale Rider at the AMC River East downtown. My mom drove me. I hadn’t yet joined the staff of my high school paper—you had to take Journalism or Photojournalism beforehand, and I wouldn’t be able to squeeze either into my schedule until the following semester. It was the first time I had gotten into anything for being “press,” a big moment for an obnoxious kid who’d dreamed of it for years. And then we saw Roger Ebert in the hallway.
Today, I can’t tell you much about the plot of Whale Rider. That could be because I saw it just once, 11 years ago, but I suspect it’s actually because I spent a good chunk of that time watching Ebert watch the movie. I studied him as he took notes and scoured his face for any clues—a nod, a smile, a frown? It was hard to tell. He was sitting a few rows away. I think some of the cast was at the screening, but in my mind, the biggest celebrity there was on the same side of the theater I was, for the same reason I was: an assignment. I caught a glimpse of the future that day, and it was a chubby guy with white hair and glasses, sitting in the dark, wielding a pen.
Roger Ebert loved his hometown, so he kept coming back. As much as Chicago loves to claim him, it was actually Champaign-Urbana—home of the University of Illinois—where he was born and raised. When he decided to launch his own film festival, Ebertfest, to honor movies he felt were overlooked or underappreciated, its location was a no-brainer. He and his wife Chaz brought actors, directors, musicians, screenwriters and journalists from all over the world to Champaign-Urbana. And every year, Ebert would take them to the local Steak ‘n Shake. That was a little weird, maybe, because Steak ‘n Shake is a chain and there are plenty of better restaurants in town to choose from. But it didn’t matter. Roger Ebert loved Steak ‘n Shake, so that’s where he took everyone.
In 2007, Ebert returned to the festival—his first public appearance since the cancer had taken his lower jaw the previous year. He sat in the back, in a LA-Z-Boy recliner reserved especially for him like a throne, for 13 movies, but after Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—the campy 1970 film whose screenplay he wrote—closed the year’s event, Ebert appeared onstage.
I was fortunate enough to be there, a freshman at the same journalism school Ebert had attended decades earlier, covering the Strawberry Alarm Clock reunion that took place at the screening. The “Incense and Peppermints” group played that day, and I was able to snag a press pass; I remember being really impressed that it was the kind with a lanyard you wear around your neck.
Ebert walked out to a thunderous standing ovation, of course. Then the theater fell silent as we waited to see what—if anything—would come next. He was frail, probably a good 50 pounds shy of his former frame. His neck was bandaged, and he could no longer speak. We watched as he fumbled with the keyboard behind his computerized voice. Finally, he gave the crowd one of his signature thumbs-ups and hit play on his message, a quote from his own movie:
“This is my happening, and it freaks me out!”
The crowd noise that followed was unlike anything I had ever heard before: a weird hybrid of uproarious laughter and collective sighs of relief.
Roger Ebert loved movies, so he watched more of them than most people can fathom and never apologized for liking a single one. Loving stuff isn’t especially hip when you’re a critic, and the main complaint about Ebert was that he was too soft. He loved movies of all genres, never limiting himself to intellectual art-house flicks. He gave Spider-Man 2 four stars. The Longest Yard—sorry, the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard—got three stars. As you might expect, Ebert caught a lot of heat for that one, but he stood by it, defending it as a movie that achieves what it set out to do.
But Ebert had a biting wit too. Because he loved movies so dearly, the bad ones offended him—so much so that he released not one, but two collections of reviews where he awarded two stars or fewer: I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie (which takes its name from a line in his famous North review) and Your Movie Sucks. After Vincent Gallo, angry about Ebert’s negative review of The Brown Bunny, made some disparaging remarks about his weight, Ebert channeled Winston Churchill and responded, “Although I am fat, one day I will be thin, but Mr. Gallo will still have been the director of The Brown Bunny.”
I am by no means the most-qualified person to be paying tribute to Roger Ebert. I’m not a film critic. If you want to know about Ebert’s influence there, read Tim Grierson’s excellent tribute. I came within a few feet a couple of times, but I never met the guy. If you want a moving, personal account of how generous Ebert was to young journalists, let me point you towards Will Leitch’s ‘My Roger Ebert Story’. If you want a good cry, a stunning portrait of Ebert’s grace in the face of death, Chris Jones’ 2010 Esquire piece “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” remains one of the best things I’ve ever read.
I am, however, a young pop culture writer. I’m lucky to make a living doing what I love, writing about the things I love and to—occasionally, at least—be taken seriously for doing it.
That is most certainly Roger Ebert’s happening.
Maybe you don’t love movies. Maybe you love sports or finance or painting or taxidermy. But chances are, you love something, and if you can find a way to do it for as long as possible and never apologize for it, you will have lived as successfully as he did.