Ending credits

Film critic Roger Ebert changed the culture just by watching it

American entertainment has given birth to a long and storied list of beloved duos.

Abbott and Costello. Hope and Crosby. Martin and Lewis. Astaire and Rogers. Laurel and Hardy. Simon and Garfunkel. Siskel and Ebert.

Siskel and Ebert?

Well, yes.

While Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert never commandeered the stage or big screen, they changed American culture profoundly – as film critics, no less.

How profoundly? Together, they not only took the formerly geeky, faceless, almost invisible art of move criticism mainstream, but in the process made themselves into celebrities of their own – guys whose talent wasn’t to perform, but to
critique those who do.

Ebert ultimately had his own film festival, “Ebertfest,” and became the first film critic to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He could even be said to have elevated the art of movie reviewing to literature: In 1975, he became the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Rivals at two warring newspapers in Chicago, Siskel and Ebert became pop stars through the PBS show Sneak Previews, later parlaying that fame into syndication. They took their fame with them, too: Sneak Previews continued without them, but without the star power.

The two came up with, and trademarked, the now-famous phrase “Two Thumbs Up!” – signalling to viewers that the two agreed a movie was worth seeing. It was a coveted stamp of approval in Hollywood, as Americans increasingly determined their movie-going decisions only after hearing what Siskel and Ebert thought.

Later, after Siskel died in 1999, Ebert continued on – even through a jarring, disfiguring thyroid cancer diagnosed in 2002 that left him unable to talk by 2006. He died Thursday at 70.

Theatrical films are a truly American art form, like jazz and, some of us would argue, barbecue. We Americans love our movies.

But hours-long perches in a dark and sticky theater are significant investments of time, attention and money – and there are few worse cultural experiences as suffering through an insufferable film. Roger Ebert became an American icon by throwing himself between us and that awful fate.

That doesn’t make him a hero, of course. Most of us would sign up for that job in 24 movie frames (about a second). But few of us could do it with the panache, skill and literary value that Roger Ebert did.

And no one has done it better.

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