I’ll let others detail his life accomplishments and awards (i.e. the first, and I believe only, film critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize); I’m going to write about what he meant to me.
I first became aware of him in the early 1980s. He and fellow critic Gene Siskel (who died in 1999) had a syndicated half hour show where they would give their famous “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to films that were being released that week. I wasn’t yet watching movies to any great extent, but I liked listening to what these two had to say about them. While I did not watch their show every week I did usually tune in to it when I thought of it. And kids, this was in the days before the internet, so if your local paper did not have a film reviewer (which mine didn’t) then this was literally the only way to hear about movies.
Over time, and as I started to see more films, I found that I tended to agree with Ebert more often than I did Siskel. As I grew older I watched their show less and less, but whenever I happened upon an Ebert review I would usually take the time to read it.
As newer critics came along they seemed to be a nastier sort of person. I would get the distinct feeling that they would give negative reviews of some films solely because they had thought of a good insult they could make from the title of it. While Ebert would certainly not hesitate to call a movie out if he felt it sucked, he seemed to usually do it with more class than the newer crop.
It may be strange for a person who has been writing his own reviews for more than two years, and who has seen over 6,000 films, to say this but I really don’t put much stock in ANY professional film critic that is out there. They all seem out of touch to one extent or another, whether they are obviously frustrated screenwriters who are slumming it, or people who feel that a certain filmmaker did not pay enough attention to their “advice” on how to make their films better. Ebert was the only one who I would even marginally pay attention to when he said a film was great or when a film was bad. I didn’t always agree with him (Kick-Ass is a recent example where I completely disagreed with him – he hated it), but no one agrees with any other person all of the time.
I can’t say that I am the movie lover I am today only because of Roger Ebert, but I can say that listening to his (and Siskel’s) comments on movies made me want to see more of them. That led to me discovering a whole other world that I could enjoy.
I will miss Roger Ebert. Film lovers are the worse off for his passing.