Roger Ebert receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005. Image via Reuters.
How do you begin to write a remembrance about someone who was so well known and who expressed himself so extensively, in his own words, throughout his life?
Journalist and film critic Roger Ebert died at the age of 70 on Wednesday, April 4. He passed away not long after penning a piece—46 years after his first review for the Chicago Sun-Times—in which he said he would be taking a step back from writing about the movies daily. “Thank you,” Ebert began simply in the blog post.
“Ebert was singular. We are all in his shadow and his debt,” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott said on Twitter. Numerous other notable figures marked his passing as well. Werner Herzog called him, “the good solider of cinema.”
Hailed by The New York Times as “the best-known film reviewer of his generation, and one of the most trusted,” Roger Ebert was remembered on Wednesday as a supremely influential individual, “The force and grace of his opinions propelled film criticism into the mainstream of American culture. Not only did he advise moviegoers about what to see, but also how to think about what they saw,” they added.
Roger Ebert gained national prominence through his weekly TV reviews alongside friendly rival critic Gene Siskel and his widely-read books. But, it was the Internet that afforded him an even wider reach, and he embraced the platform until his death.
Throughout the afternoon and evening on the day he died, Ebert was remembered fondly by countless people.
“I first came to know Roger the way that many people did—on TV. I would watch the show and often find myself thinking: 'These are two guys who actually know about movies, and who really love them.' It was an anomaly then, and it would be even more of an anomaly now,” wrote Kent Jones, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Director of Programming for the New York Film Festival. “Our paths crossed a few times professionally. He was always extremely gracious, but he could also be bitingly funny. One morning, Phillip Lopate and Richard Peña and I were having what I’m afraid was an extremely solemn discussion of the previous day’s screenings at our hotel in Cannes. Roger came down and said, at the top of his voice, 'Good morning, intellectuals!'
“A few years later, I was back in Cannes in a different capacity, and I saw Roger for the last time. He’d had his surgery, he was communicating via computer and dialog box, but he was just as sharp and present and funny and alive as ever,” Jones continued. “I admired the fact that he didn’t hide himself away from the world but kept showing up in public, unashamed of the reality of his altered appearance. His love for movies, for his wife Chaz, for writing, and for cooking—even though he himself could no longer eat—appeared to be uninterrupted. When you stop to think about it, you’ll realize what a rare human being he was.”
A battle with cancer that began more than ten years ago ultimately left Ebert unable to speak, but his voice grew louder when he embraced social media. He had thousands of friends and followers on Facebook and was a constant presence on Twitter (@EbertChicago) until the end. Ebert sent more than 31,000 Tweets in just a few short years and, as I discovered first hand during my time as Editor-in-Chief of Indiewire, a short online missive from Roger Ebert would generate considerable traffic to a link he shared with his followers.
On a brief personal note, I was always honored to receive Roger's endorsement. At festivals around the world, Roger and his wife Chaz were continually quick with a word of support and a nod of encouragement. Public and private seals of approval validated the work that we were doing even from the earliest days of Indiewire. The last time I saw Roger he offered me a trademark thumbs up.
Roger Ebert could be both complimentary and critical in his writing, yet while on the ground and in public at a festival or event he was a tireless champion and cheerleader, whether working a room with a camera around his neck or privately nudging a filmmaker or someone in the industry. Later this month, the 15th edition of his EbertFest—celebrating overlooked movies—will be held in Champaign, Illinois.
Many have privately dreaded for years the moment that Roger Ebert's Twitter feed would go silent. It was a constant companion, at all hours of the day and night, for so many fans and those in the global film community.
“My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins' theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body,” Roger Ebert wrote in a popular 2011 Salon article in which he declared fearlessness in the face of death, “After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.”
In the wake of news of his passing, Roger Ebert's wife of twenty years, Chaz Ebert, has been a constant consideration.
“I am devastated by the loss of my love, Roger—my husband, my friend, my confidante and oh-so-brilliant partner of over 20 years,” she said in a statement on her late husband's website. “He fought a courageous fight. I've lost the love of my life and the world has lost a visionary and a creative and generous spirit who touched so many people all over the world. We had a lovely, lovely life together, more beautiful and epic than a movie. It had its highs and the lows, but was always experienced with good humor, grace and a deep abiding love for each other.”
Chaz Ebert said that her husband died peacefully on Wednesday.
“We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition. We are touched by all the kindness and the outpouring of love we've received. And I want to echo what Roger said in his last blog, thank you for going on this journey with us.”
Amidst the many tributes and salutes that continued to pour in online in the hours after his death, Roger Ebert was also saluted by a notable local.“For a generation of Americans—and especially Chicagoans—Roger was the movies,” President Barack Obama said in a statement on Wednesday. “When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive—capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.”
Such a statement from a sitting U.S. President underscored the importance and impact of Roger Ebert.
“Even amidst his own battles with cancer, Roger was as productive as he was resilient—continuing to share his passion and perspective with the world,” President Obama continued in his statement. “The movies won’t be the same without Roger, and our thoughts and prayers are with Chaz and the rest of the Ebert family.”
The Film Society of Lincoln Center echoes President Obama's sentiments and sends our deepest condolences to Chaz Ebert, as well as Roger's family and friends.