Roger Ebert, through his popular movie review TV show and newspaper reviews, is one of the best-known and most respected film critics of his generation. In his TV and print appearances, as well as his lectures and public appearances, he has made a real contribution to helping the general public appreciate the film art.
Mr. Ebert has also used his platform to promote creative freedom for artists and to address other issues of concern in our culture and society. He talked about all of those subjects and more in a wide-ranging interview with TelevisionWeek Editor Alex Ben Block. The interview was conducted by phone with Mr. Ebert, who was in Paris at the time. An edited transcript follows.
TelevisionWeek: Are you of the school of people who say movies aren’t as good as they used to be?
Roger Ebert: You know, it’s kind of hard to say, because we see all the movies that are made today and we only see the best movies that are made 50 years ago or 100 years ago. If you had to look at every film that was made in 1939, you might not think it was the greatest year in the history of movies. There were a lot of bad movies that were probably made that have been totally forgotten. I do feel there may never again be the excitement there was-I was so lucky to become a film critic in ’67. Between 1967 and about 1977, it was an amazing time. Oh my God, you had the emergence of Scorsese and Altman and Bertolucci and Lucas and Spielberg, and you had the richness of Bergman and Fellini. You went to the New York Film Festival and you saw the new Godard and the new Kurosawa. That was the greatest time in my movie-going career. In those days, the great movies were in the vanguard. Today the commercial movies are in the vanguard. And the great movies have to fight for attention.
TVWeek: They’re in the art house cinemas trying to get any release.
Mr. Ebert: Well, you know, it’s funny when you talk about art houses. During the golden period there were only about three screens in Chicago showing art films, and now we have, I think, eight screens at Landmark and we have the Music Box. I think we have about probably 15 or 20 art screens in Chicago. You know, not every film is necessarily an art film. The big cities are pretty well served. The small towns are very badly served. But of course, DVD and cable have become very important.
TVWeek: Is that a good thing?
Mr. Ebert: Yeah. The aftermarket. I have this Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois where I show films or genres or formats that I think have been unfairly overlooked, and I talk to people who make little films that are really good but don’t get much of a release, and they are surprised they do find an audience on DVD. Something like Netflix, for example, does a good job of recommending films to people, and people just take a chance on a film and they usually find out that the selection process is more or less on the money.
TVWeek: Let me ask you about the show for a minute. There are any number of review shows that have come and gone in the time that you’ve been on the air, first with Gene [Siskel] and now with Richard Roeper. Why has your show lasted?
Mr. Ebert: I think it’s because we’ve always stayed with a very simple formula of reviewing five or six movies every week, and then we’ve added, of course, some DVD selections. We don’t have gossip. We don’t show trailers. We don’t have any guests. You know if you tune in to the show you’re going to see reviews of five or six new movies that are opening, and some of them are going to be opening in your town. Period. That’s what it is. And I think that people have more or less felt that we’re on the level and we’re speaking plainly and sincerely. I think that Richard has turned out to be a very good choice. Gene will never be able to be replaced, but we had about a year and a half of guest hosts, some of them really, really good, and I think we got the right one. And our ratings right now, this particular season, I think are the strongest they’ve been in a long time.
TVWeek: Would you talk a little bit about Gene and then Richard-what each has meant to you and how they impacted you?
Mr. Ebert: Well, Gene and I of course had a-we were young together, and we were competitors together. Two years after I started at the Sun-Times he was hired at the Tribune to knock me off. We were still in our 20s. And so you feel a kind of competitiveness at that age that, frankly, you don’t feel later.
TVWeek: And that came out in the show.
Mr. Ebert: Yeah, whatever you saw on that show was on the level. That was our real relationship, which was a love/hate relationship. We liked each other; we even loved each other. And we also had days when we hated each other. And out of the clear blue sky a storm could brew. Gene could say something or I could say something, on the air even, that would hit the other guy the wrong way. And that was unique. You couldn’t manufacture that. Richard-I think that when he was first chosen for the show, some film critics around the country said, well, he’s not a film critic. But you see, he couldn’t be a film critic because he worked for the Sun-Times and I was the film critic. He did manage to write about a thousand pieces on the movies over a period of time and almost always had a piece in Sunday’s paper about the movies. And I found out by talking to him and reviewing movies with him and discussing movies that he has more of a knowledge of movies, titles, directors, stars, more moviegoing under his belt, than a lot of critics who have been full-time critics all of that time. I enjoy talking about the movies with him. We haven’t had a fight yet. We’re in our fifth season and we haven’t really gotten mad at each other. And that’s OK too, because I don’t think I could take any more of that. I mean, I miss Gene, but it’s nice to go in on Wednesdays and tape the show in a nice, positive spirit. Richard, I think, is awfully good on television.
TVWeek: You have a unique vantage point in having seen what it’s like to be a print critic and then to see the impact of your work on television. What is the impact of putting criticism of movies on television? How has it changed you? And how has it changed the business?
Mr. Ebert: Well, you know that line in `Network’ where he says, `It’s because you’re on television, dummy’? Gene and I, when we first started doing this show, we had no idea really. We didn’t really conceive that it would ever become a national show. And we found that the show actually had influence. I don’t like to boast, but I do know that there were specific films that had their fortunes changed by that show. One of them was, of course, `My Dinner With Andre,’ which was going to close, absolutely close, after one week. And our review appeared-the show played Thursday night in New York and the 10 o’clock show was sold out at the New York theater. So they held it over another week, and it wound up playing for 60 weeks. And when they finally closed that run, they had Siskel and me onstage with Wally [Shawn] and Andre [Gregory] to talk about it. And that was when we knew the show was working, that we could turn out an audience for a movie that was going to close and turn it into a hit. We certainly, for example, were instrumental in `Hoop Dreams,’ and I think that probably our early support two years ago of `Monster’ was very important. We went three weeks early with that movie. I saw it and I said, We’ve got to go early with this. We’ve got to get on the record, before people miss it and don’t realize how great it is.
TVWeek: Do you see most movies just once?
Mr. Ebert: Most of the time you only have the opportunity to see a movie once before your deadline. If I see a film at a film festival and time has passed, they’ll usually screen it again in Chicago. I always go to it when I can, because I don’t like to review a movie that I haven’t seen in six months. But usually they show the movie, and it opens on Friday or it opens a week from Friday. You get one shot at it.
TVWeek: You know, one of the things we’ve seen increasingly is the mixing of politics and movies. Is this a good thing? A bad
Mr. Ebert: There has always been politics in movies. I mean, Eisenstein certainly was a political filmmaker. I think it’s important for it to be noted that the film has an opinion, and if the critic has an opinion that should be noted too. So I try to make it clear where I’m coming from and where the director is coming from, and on that basis you review the film. I don’t make any secret of politics, because I think it would be unfair for me to pose as an objective, detached observer when I might be in fact very opinionated.
TVWeek: Do you want to describe for me what your politics are?
Mr. Ebert: I’m a liberal.
TVWeek: Conservatives today are saying liberals are biased. Do you buy into that?
Mr. Ebert: Liberals are biased. You know, bias means you don’t agree with me. Nobody ever thinks they’re biased. It’s always the people who disagree with them who are biased.
TVWeek: I honestly believe that the United States is in-and I don’t want to overstate it-but a cultural divide.
Mr. Ebert: Yeah, there’s a lot of polarization, partially caused by, I think-well, see, I don’t want to say that the right wing is biased, but there is this drumbeat of right-wing talk radio, day after day after day, demonizing liberals. And of course liberalism is not only a great American tradition but most of the good things in American society came out of liberalism. That’s my opinion. I mean, there are all kinds of ways in which everyday life is improved by the fact that liberals took a position, and in almost every case conservatives have opposed that position.
TVWeek: Narrowing it down to the media world, since the Janet Jackson `wardrobe malfunction’ …
Mr. Ebert: And you know, we are so immature. Is there anybody in America that doesn’t know what a breast looks like?
TVWeek: The answer from the FCC would be young children.
Mr. Ebert: Well, I don’t even know that that’s the case.
TVWeek: But there’s been kind of a chill since that happened, hasn’t there?
Mr. Ebert: Well, yes, I think so. The fact that so many stations wouldn’t show `Saving Private Ryan’-it had already played, you know, and now they didn’t want to play it again. And there’s a lot more give and take over here in Europe, where I’m on vacation right now, where people are a lot more grown-up about it. It’s as if America is being held to kind of a false, juvenile attitude toward things.
TVWeek: Not sophisticated?
Mr. Ebert: Well, it’s as if people feel if they can control expression of various kinds of opinions, maybe they can control the thought, or the thought of society. They’re threatened by people who think or operate outside certain very narrow boundaries. Most Americans, the vast majority of Americans, are not concerned about Janet Jackson, are not concerned when they hear an F-word. The funny thing is, you look on television, if it’s not one of the over-the-air channels, you can see all of that stuff all the time, constantly. HBO has language and nudity and sex. There are shows like `Sex and the City.’ It’s on the same TV as ABC and NBC and CBS.
TVWeek: But you do have to write a check to get that.
Mr. Ebert: Yeah, but most people do.
TVWeek: Tell me, how is your health? We’ve all cheered your great courage through all of your illnesses. Could you give me an update of where you’re at?
Mr. Ebert: It seems to be OK. I had surgery a year ago September and I had radiation during the month of December 2003. I had a checkup in September, and I was pronounced to be in good health and disease-free. And I’m very optimistic. It’s not one of the most horrible cancers you can get-salivary cancer. And the previous bout was with thyroid cancer. People are confused because they don’t realize I had two cancers more or less in the same area.
TVWeek: Did you also have a stroke at one point?
Mr. Ebert: No, I had no stroke. I had seen that in chat rooms. It’s because occasionally my mouth might droop a little bit when I get tired, and that’s because of the surgery. I’ve had three surgeries in the neck and chin area, but I have not had a stroke of any kind or degree whatsoever at all.
TVWeek: One of the things I admire about you is that you get out to most of the festivals and major events. I remember you used to kid Gene Siskel about not going to Cannes. He went maybe one or two times.
Mr. Ebert: He went once. But of course he had a family.
TVWeek: Why do you go to that trouble?
Mr. Ebert: I love films. And at the festivals you can see films you might not be able to see otherwise. And especially with this Overlooked Film Festival I have, it gives me the chance to find a film maybe at a festival that has been overlooked and show it. I don’t know that it helps it that much. Maybe it does. But at least it celebrates it, and it shows it to an audience. We have a 1,600-seat theater that we use. In most cases, the people who bring films to the Overlooked Film Festival are seeing them with the largest audience that has ever seen the film-1,600 people all at once. And they get something out of that. I go to Telluride, Toronto, Sundance and Cannes. And many years I’ve gone to Hawaii, many years to Virginia; this year I went to Savannah. And we’ve even gone to places like Calcutta and Carlo Vivari and Locarno. And I’m lucky that I’m married to a woman who loves movies and knows a lot about them and is as tireless as she can be. Chaz is really a good sport to go to all these film festivals with me. She’s there at 8:30 in the morning for whatever the movie is.
TVWeek: How many years have you been married now?
Mr. Ebert: We’re going on about 13 years. Closing in on 14.
TVWeek: She’s really your partner in everything.
Mr. Ebert: She is my partner. She has made a big, big, positive difference in my life. And she’s very understanding, because when you get right down to it, a movie critic has a particularly weird schedule and a very strange job. It’s a lot of fun sometimes, but it’s kind of strange too.
TVWeek: If all those people who write you e-mails and are confused about movies today were sitting here, do you have any final thoughts to share with them?
Mr. Ebert: Sometimes I will write back to somebody who sends me an e-mail disagreeing with a review. And I say that it would be a miracle if we agreed all the time. If you only want to read a critic who agrees with you, then why read the critic at all, because you already know what you think. I would suggest to people that they be more adventuresome. People’s moviegoing decisions are oftentimes too much based on the box-office hits and the top films of the weekend. Frequently the best film in town will not be in the top 10. Or it might be down at the bottom of the top 10. It’s possible for a very good movie to be very popular. But it’s also generally the case that if you only follow the crowd, the crowd doesn’t always have the best taste.