As certain critics age, they seem to drag around years of bad movies like ankle chains. They remind me of Gothic heros, betrayed lovers convinced virtue never existed at all. Once long ago these critics were hurt by a movie, oh yes, many movies, and now they say to each sweet young prospect, "You cannot deceive me! I know what you are!"
Roger Ebert wrote some of the most bitingly funny pans of all time, but he never went that route. He was writing raves right up to the end. Each movie held the possibility of love. He was a true romantic.
Here's how I recall an old "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno where Ebert appeared with Gene Siskel. Like many other people, I grew up with those two bickering in the balcony. Leno had the bright idea of putting soundproof headphones on one critic, so the other could tell the audience what he really thought of his partner. Ebert went first with the headphones. He put them on, paused a second, and with a grin of delight said, "Mozart!" And his hand started beating out a little conducting session.
Leno asked Siskel, so what do you really think of this guy? And Siskel replied calmly, "First of all, I'm a much better critic than he is." The audience roared. Leno cracked up. Even with headphones on, it should have been obvious to Ebert that something was up.
Except he was still conducting. I'm not even sure he turned his head. He was listening to Mozart. Art mattered to him.
Many film writers owe a debt to Ebert. Mine comes from what must have been a 1983 "At the Movies" broadcast. He and Siskel were doing a rundown on the Academy Awards, one of those "If We Picked the Winners" shows.
I don't remember Siskel's choice (although it might have been E.T.). But Ebert chose Tootsie. "It's an almost perfect comedy," he said. Gandhi was going to win, he predicted, "but which movie do you think you'll still want to see in 20 years?"
My kid mind reeled. I'd seen Gandhi, and I'd seen Tootsie. I loved Tootsie, but it was about Dustin Hoffman in drag. Gandhi had Ben Kingsley. Bald Ben Kingsley. With an accent. Bald Ben Kingsley getting assassinated. Gandhi was--OK, it was stuffy. But it was serious. That's what wins Oscars. Right?
In roundabout fashion, Roger Ebert had introduced me to the notion of white elephant art, years before I ever heard the name Manny Farber. He'd also planted the idea that if you had a blast watching a movie, that alone meant it was worth some serious thought.
I haven't watched Gandhi since 1982. Tootsie I've seen several times. Think I'll watch it this weekend.
Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert. You were right about many things.