This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Robert Zemeckis, Filmmaker
I just don’t know how film critics can do it. How they can sit and watch everything. How they have the stamina to do that. The thought of someone saying to me, “You have to watch four movies a day for the rest of your life, and you can’t choose what they are,” is terrifying. I think the way Roger did it is, he really did love movies. I’d known him since I made my first film, I Want to Hold Your Hand, when he took me to lunch at the Chicago Club. It was a great honor. Since then, I always had an audience with him for every film. We would just talk about movies we loved -- not what either of us was doing -- just shoot the shit about movies. He was a film scholar, but most of all, he was appreciative of entertainment.
Leonard Maltin, Critic-writer
It’s impossible to overstate the impact Roger and his longtime partner and rival Gene Siskel had on popular culture and the perception of film criticism. They were both firmly established in Chicago, writing for the Sun-Times and the Tribune, respectively, when their local public television affiliate exposed them to a national audience on PBS in the early 1980s. Imagine: a weekly half-hour program consisting of two critics debating current movies. There had never been anything like it. Gene and Roger were in the right place at the right time, and they made the most of it: They became bona fide celebrities, and soon their names were synonymous with film criticism. (I know this first-hand, because Entertainment Tonight started around the same time. When people started recognizing me in hotel lobbies and airports, they would often ask, “Aren’t you Siskelandebert?” as if it were a compound name.)
The role of critics has been marginalized by the growth of the Internet and the empowerment of self-made bloggers who are eager to share their opinions. But few, if any, of these wannabes will ever come close to Roger Ebert as an essayist, and I doubt that anyone will ever have the enormous impact he and Gene Siskel had on the moviegoing public.
Martin Scorsese, Filmmaker
Back in the ’80s, my career was at a low ebb. My last two pictures hadn’t made money and were made at a transitional moment in Hollywood, after Heaven’s Gate. My first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart at the very last minute, I was absolutely exhausted and I thought, “OK, this is it, I probably won’t be able to make any more pictures.” I wasn’t talking much, I wasn’t going out; I would see only a few people here and there. And then one day, completely out of the blue, I received an invitation from Roger and Gene Siskel to be the honoree at that year’s Night of the Stars in Toronto. It was just what I needed; it actually helped to bring me back to life. Roger knew that, I think, but he didn’t present it that way -- he was always encouraging, always affirming, but without making a show of it. Roger was just there for me, in a way that few people in my life have ever been. It meant the world to me.
Michael Barker, Co-president, Sony Pictures Classics
Roger had the ability to communicate how movies explain the world to us and who we are as human beings. That talent made him the world’s most popular and influential film critic. And how fortunate for all of us he had such a love of independent film. Ask Ang Lee. Ask Errol Morris. Louis Malle used to tell everyone Roger saved Atlantic City from disaster. Robert Altman echoed that. The list goes on. The fact is, we would not know movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, Hoop Dreams and Roger & Me as we do if it were not for Roger Ebert.
Patty Jenkins, Filmmaker
Making Monster was a huge uphill battle. It was a tiny movie with very little money, and every step was a struggle. Even the decision to cast Charlize Theron: Today it looks brilliant, but at the time it made us a laughingstock because she was seen as much too beautiful to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos. We had no money to release the film, and instead of doing the festival circuit, the producers decided to put it out in screenings just days after we finished it. It was a dodgy proposal that this film would ever find its audience.
Then out of nowhere comes Roger Ebert with this amazing review, calling Charlize’s work “one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.” And when the movie started to get press -- thanks to him -- he kept talking about it, he kept engaging with it, addressing the other critics and really keeping the momentum going.
When you make a film, you struggle over every detail and you expect people to reflect your ideas and intentions back to you in very vague terms. But Roger saw completely what I was trying to do and reflected it back to me in words; he saw things that even people who were working with me didn’t see: that this film was an education in the human experience, letting you walk in the shoes of someone who is technically the worst kind of monster so that you can see how a person ends up in that situation. He understood that I wasn’t making a value judgment or justifying her actions, but simply trying to show how you could end up being a different person than you think.
When I won the Independent Spirit Award [for best first feature], I saw that he was there across the room, and I spent a good part of my speech talking about what he had done for the film -- how every time it looked like the film was down for the count, Roger Ebert would speak up for it and do something to keep it alive. When I said that he in particular was someone who had always given this kind of support to smaller, independent films, the room gave him a standing ovation.
I met him for the first time that night, and we had a wonderful moment. I wish that I knew how to give back more to someone like him. He was the critic whose thoughts I most wanted to hear on my work, and I’m sad that he won’t be around for that next time.
Virginia Madsen, Actress
I first met Roger in 1986. He interviewed my mother, Elaine, brother Michael and me for a story in the Sun-Times titled, “Mother Madsen’s Dream Comes True.” This was big-time for me. This meant real success. Roger Ebert interviewing us? Wow. We all gathered at Elaine’s apartment just off Wells Street on Burton Way. Roger was just like you’d hoped he would be. Engaging, intelligent ... and that laugh! It was very exciting for me, and I tried to stay cool. I had a habit of tousling my hair and giggling when nervous, and that was not at all who I wanted to be at the time. Roger didn’t seem to mind. He had a way of looking right into your eyes and drawing out who you really were. I knew he didn’t see me as a “bombshell” -- which is how I was being labeled at the time -- or Michael as a villain or my mother as just another pretty face. He just saw us as a Midwestern family that against all odds had made it out. I asked him why he wanted to interview us. He said, “I see something in you. I think you’re unusual. You are all filmmakers, and I guess I wanted to know why. I think you are all going to do some very important things.” Young and passionate, I tried not to be silly and start crying, but I might have, just a bit. When someone believes in you, you remember that for a lifetime.
Many years later, when it was my turn at the Oscars, Roger was a champion for the film Sideways. He was cheering me on all throughout the awards season for my best supporting actress nomination. I got to hug him before and after the big show. He knew how far I’d come. He knew how much I’d been through. I still felt like a starlet next to him, only now I had a thicker skin. He still had his great laugh. Even when that sound was taken from him and he would write on a small notepad, you could still hear that laugh.
Lee Daniels, Filmmaker
Roger was really supportive of all of my films, as a producer and a director. I got a chance to meet him several times and hang with him and his beautiful wife, too. Sometimes people are mean-spirited when they review your films, and with Roger, he found the good in my movies. I was blessed I didn’t get his thumbs-down, even with films that were not necessarily celebrated in Hollywood. He got me as a filmmaker. He was just a wonderful human being, a kind soul. Critics are set up to just jump on you. You put a year and a half of life into something for critics to just attack. But he wanted to like all movies. He was looking forward to enjoying a film; that’s how he began his critic’s process. I held his opinion in high regard. He will be sorely missed.
Werner Herzog, Filmmaker
Four decades back, at the time I was releasing my film Aguirre: The Wrath of God, he was very enthusiastic about it and very helpful about it because he put it on his list -- I think it was the 10 best of all time -- and it opened somehow the curiosity of American audiences.
We did not meet very often. I can’t even say we were real friends because we did not see each other often enough. But we had a different understanding about cinema, and we had a very deep respect for each other’s work. That was more what connected us.
I always kept talking about him as the good soldier of cinema, because he started to call me that, and I said, “No, it fits you much better.” The last 10 years, he was a wounded soldier. But I always have a deep admiration for those who soldier on until there is no breath left in them.
He had a deep understanding of the elements of cinema. He was always looking for a stratum of truth, a silver lining of truth and how to accomplish it.
I was asked if his writing informed my films. No, it did not. Did the fact that we were in friends in a way change the course of my life? The answer is no. But knowing him made it better.
His demise marks the end of an epoch. I’m speaking of an epoch where we had serious discourse about film.
There was a fire within many people to talk about and write about and discuss movies. All this in the last two decades, all this has irrevocably and inexorably shifted into celebrity news. You can see that in print and on television. Siskel & Ebert doesn’t exist. The replacement now is celebrity news. In the print media, one newspaper after another abandons its critics. They’re being replaced by celebrity news. It’s not just the invention of the media. It’s a big cultural shift. It has to do with audiences, it has to do with a massive, overwhelming trend. Because of that, Roger marked an epoch, which is not completely but is almost very much over.