Roger Ebert and I first got to know each other—rather intimately, actually—when we had to share a relatively small square at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1986 for the Academy Awards.
People were outside protesting Jodie Foster, and Roger was doing a live TV feed, and the Academy put my Los Angeles Daily News taped spot right next to him. It was hot that March 24, and we were both sweating, and nervous.
“Just relax, kid, these stars are nervous, too,” he said. And of course, he asked me not to get in the way.
Then, the stars came down the line, tons of them, superstars, and near-superstars.
“Here comes Katharine Hepburn,” Roger said as he motioned to his cameraman. “It’s Kate, Kate!”
I quickly corrected the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, whom I knew was just making a momentary mistake. “It’s Audrey, Roger. It’s Audrey.”
We both talked to the luminous Audrey Hepburn for a few brief fleeting moments, and then Roger turned to me and said, “Thanks, kid, that would’ve been bad.”
I’ve covered the Academy Awards for many different publications for more than a quarter of a century, and always would see Roger there. We had to fight to ask questions by holding up placards with numbers when a celebrity would come backstage after winning a trophy.
“Don’t ask a stupid question when you’re backstage, they won’t call on you for a few years after if you do,” he warned me. He was right, and that advice always helped.
We got to know each other by covering many, many film festivals together, and later found out we had a close mutual friend, Canadian-Italian journalist Angela Baldassarre, and for more than a dozen years always scheduled a dinner or lunch together no matter how busy we were during the crazy Toronto Interational Film Festival.
Roger would lament how the Internet was hurting film criticism, because anyone could be a critic. And, he pointed out that anyone can become a critic, but he thought that people should know film history. “There are kids who are writing about movies who have never seen Gone With the Wind on the big screen,” he said. “Well, and some haven’t seen it at all!”
When I taught Film Criticism at UCLA Extension, I told Roger that I often used some of his wise advice. He said, “It doesn’t matter what you think of a movie, it’s whether you can explain why you like or don’t like it in clear, plain English. That’s what make a good critic.”
He also made me realize that it's a lot harder to explain why you don't like a film than explain why you like it, which is why a lot of critics go around trashing movies just because they like to be clever.
Angie, Roger and I often went to see screenings together, both in Toronto and Los Angeles. We very often disagreed whether we liked a movie or not, and he very often wouldn’t weigh in right away, and let his decisions sink in. Sometimes, we all three fell asleep at the screening, yet somehow the next day he was giving his opinion about the film on his TV show!
At the big, opening gala for Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, we sat together, directly behind the director and cast. It was embarrassingly long, and it was hard for all of us to stifle yawns.
Van Sant is famous for re-editing that movie based a lot on what Roger said about it.
The three of us also sat through an explicit gay oral sex scene at the beginning of Bruce LaBruce’s Super 8 1/2. After an uncomfortable 10 minutes, Roger turned to us and asked, “Do you like this? I think I don’t have to review this.” He walked out. That was a rare event for him.
Roger also had a very specific place he liked to sit, and I always followed his advice ever since then. In a theater with three sections and two aisles, he liked to sit on the aisle seat, usually on the right of the theater, so he didn’t have to look over anyone’s head, and so he could make a quick exit if he needed to.
During one of the film festivals, it was Roger who recommended me to be in the 2009 documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. He said the Internet was going to be the future of film criticism, and that my work at Zap2it.com was a good example of what lies ahead. He gave me a thumbs up!
He loved meeting and talking to stars, but he didn’t like to interview celebrities or directors if he also reviewed their films. “It would just get to be us talking about why the film worked or not, and I never would get enough for a story,” he said. “If I did interviews, I tried not to review the film—or at least I did the review after I did the interview.”
Roger and I were both quoted on the same page in the book by John Cones, The Patterns of Bias in Hollywood Movies, and the great critic never failed to return an email, or offer to give me a quote for a story, if I needed one.
Anyone who met him knew how gracious he was in that regard, and how much he loved to discuss film. He wrote back every fan.
Roger, Angie and I also had a connection that was a bit stranger, too. He was diagnosed with cancer the same exact time that Angie was diagnosed with cancer, and I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It was within a month of each other, and we all still attended the September Toronto Film Festival after, in 2002, and lamented that something was going to get all of us at some point anyway.
It got Angie first. She died in 2007, and I remember how Roger cursed “that dreaded disease” when we emailed and talked about it. He always asked me how I was doing and feeling, even though cancer eventually ate away half of his face and he didn’t have a mouth anymore.
He wrote me that he missed eating the most. He missed tasting food. (Roger was a good cook!) He still cooked for his wonderful wife, Chaz, even though he could no longer eat.
The last time I watched a movie with Roger was at the gala presentation of Elizabeth: The Golden Age in Toronto in 2007. I sat next to him, and he communicated by writing on a notepad, and apologized many times for the gurgling noise of the machine that was on the lower half of his face. Many of the greatest critics in the world came up to say hello, and he always motioned for me to introduce myself as we sat there. Later, at the party, he was gracious to the actors, Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Samantha Morton, Clive Owen and director Shekhar Kapur.
I emailed Roger regularly, especially when I would hear about him on the news. I loved that he said last year was a good year in movies, and I wrote him to disagree. He said I was getting old.
Yesterday, I heard that he heard that his cancer had returned, but he was going to fight it, and that he was going to take it easier. He said he was going to only write about the “good movies.”
I laughed and reminded myself to email him. I never got to it.
Anyone who knew Roger knew what a great guy he was—and film criticism will never be the same without him.
* Flowers to Be Placed on Roger Ebert's Walk of Fame Star
Mike Szymanski is the editor of Studio City Patch and Sherman Oaks Patch.