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Obituary: Roger Ebert

Story by Jack Foley

WIDELY respected film critic Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer.

His newspaper the Chicago Sun-Times reported his passing on Thursday, April 4, 2013, just a day after Ebert himself had posted on his popular blog that he faced a fresh battle with cancer and was taking a “leave of presence”, writing fewer reviews.

Ebert was known for his thumbs-up or down television reviews with partner and friend Gene Siskel. He also became the Sun-Times’ film critic In 1967.

Such was the value placed on his opinions on films that his columns were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers worldwide and he won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975 – the first film critic to do so.

That same year, a film review show starring Ebert and cross-town rival Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune premiered on local television. It soon went national and turned both critics into household names. It continued until Siskel’s death in 1999.

Born in Urbana, Illinois on June 18, 1942, Roger Joseph Ebert was destined to pursue a career in journalism from an early age, covering high school sports for a local newspaper at 15 and becoming editor of his university’s student newspaper.

Ebert then spent a year on scholarship at the University of Cape Town in South Africa before beginning work on a doctorate in English at the University of Chicago, where soon found part-time work at the Sun-Times before being named its movie critic in 1967.

During a prolific career of writing, Ebert also penned more than 15 books about the movies and had the respect of many actors and filmmakers for his opinions, whether good or bad.

A good review could deliver a film a box office boost and get it noticed, while a bad one good dent its chances of success. And he wasn’t shy when it came to dishing out damning verdicts. One of his most renowned rants came at the expense of Elijah Wood’s North, which compelled him to write: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

But among his favourites were Bonnie and Clyde, Apocalypse Now, House of Games, Do the Right Thing, Hoop Dreams, Being John Malkovich, Minority Report, Pan’s Labyrinth and A Separation. He named Ben Affleck’s Argo as his best film of 2012, Argo. It went on to be named best film at this year’s Oscars.

Such was the respect he held within industry and wider circles that he was regularly awarded for his work. Chicago, in particular, held him with great esteem as one of the city’s favourite sons.

A portion of Erie Street in the city was renamed Siskel & Ebert Way in 1995 and he was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 1997. He received the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from the Chicago Public Library in 2011.

Wider appreciation of his talent came in the form of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (unveiled in 2005) and being named an honorary life member by the Directors Guild of America, one of the most influential filmmaking bodies.

Martin Scorsese is executive producing a documentary about Ebert, based on the memoir Life Itself, which is due to premiere at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival.

Ebert’s battle with cancer began in 2002 when he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. A portion of his lower jaw was removed four years later following cancer surgery, which meant that he lost the ability to speak, eat or drink.

But ever determined, he turned to the Internet to continue opining on films, drawing enormous audiences and, wearing a prosthetic chin and with his reviews being read by voice-over actors, he eventually returned to television.

In December 2012, however, Ebert took to his blog to describe his latest ailment… “a slight and nearly invisible hairline fracture involving my left femur”. It had immobilized him.

“I didn’t fall. I didn’t break it. It just sort of … happened to itself,” he said.

On April 3, he revealed that what he thought was a fracture was cancer and that he was undergoing radiation treatment and cutting back on his work, describing it as a “leave of presence”.

He added: “It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital.

“So, on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”

While Ebert may now be resting in peace, his legacy will continue. The Chicago Sun-Times said he “was without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic”, while Forbes described him as “the most powerful pundit in America”. It’s hard to disagree.