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Roger Ebert dies at 70; Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic

Roger Ebert gave independent films popular appeal, and his 'thumbs-up, thumbs-down' ratings on TV were both coveted and scorned. The prolific critic continued to write reviews while battling cancer in recent years.

April 04, 2013|By John Horn and Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times

Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic whose gladiatorial "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" assessments turned film reviewing into a television sport and whose passion for independent film helped introduce a new generation of filmmakers to moviegoers, has died. He was 70.

Ebert, who had battled cancer in recent years, died Thursday in Chicago, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, where he had been film critic for 46 years. He had undergone several surgeries to remove cancerous tumors from his thyroid and salivary glands, ultimately losing his jaw and speaking voice to the disease.

While his cancer diagnosis and the resulting treatments forced him briefly to pull back from criticism in 2006, he remained active as a writer and maintained a powerful presence on social media sites that included his award-winning blog, Roger Ebert's Journal, where he candidly discussed his failing health. By his count, in 2012 he wrote more than 300 reviews, more than in any year of his career.

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Earlier this week he announced on the blog that he would be taking "a leave of presence" and scaling back from writing.

“Roger through his reviews, blog posts and tweets brought the appreciation of film, and film criticism, to the widest possible audience and into the 21st century,” Times film critic Kenneth Turan said Thursday. “And his refusal to give an inch to a terrible disease was beyond inspirational.”

In May 2008, Ebert had returned to writing movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times but essentially said goodbye to the TV show that made him famous. Cancer had robbed him of his voice, and Ebert refused to face another surgery that could restore it.

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"I still have all my other abilities, including the love of viewing movies and writing about them," Ebert wrote in 2008 in the Sun-Times.

As the longtime and prolific critic for the Chicago newspaper, he wrote reviews while co-hosting a popular nationally syndicated TV show that, in the 1980s, was known as "At the Movies." Ebert was the first movie critic to win journalism's most prestigious award, collecting his Pulitzer in 1975, but he had the greatest impact through his TV forum, which began that same year on Chicago public television.

The TV reviews were not always the most sophisticated or reasoned, but they were widely influential. Ebert and his co-host — most famously, rival Chicago Tribune newspaper critic Gene Siskel, his broadcast partner for 23 years — would quarrel over a film's merits, then render judgment with a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down score.

While the impact of any single film critic has declined in recent years—moviegoers typically rely on aggregate scores and word-of-mouth advice—the power of that single digit was profound. Hollywood marketing chiefs considered a dual thumbs-up recommendation more important (and marketable) than any other reviewer's praise, and prominently featured the marks in advertising. The thumbs even were registered as a trademark.

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Approval from Ebert and his sidekick not only could influence mainstream box office fare but also deliver ticket buyers to more daring, artistic works that relied upon critical word-of-mouth. This was how Ebert, with other critics, successfully encouraged audiences to seek out independent films, which in recent decades have come to dominate the Academy Awards.

To encourage its theatrical prospects, Ebert glowingly reviewed the documentary "Hoop Dreams" before the independent film even premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. He later named the high school basketball film the best cinema work of the 1990s. He and Siskel also pushed audiences to see such movies as diverse as 1986's "Tampopo" and 1992's "One False Move."

Ebert remained a champion of quality movies that had failed to attract wide attention. In 1999, he launched a film festival now known as Ebertfest, an annual celebration of usually independently financed films staged at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

At the 2009 Ebertfest, Ebert and his wife, Chaz, announced that they had given the university a $1-million gift toward the creation of a film studies program.

When Siskel — who died at 53 from brain cancer in 1999 — and Ebert started their movie review show more than 35 years ago, cineastes could browse highbrow film journals and take in Francois Truffaut retrospectives at museums and universities.

Average moviegoers subsisted on occasional magazine profiles or brief wire service reviews in newspapers. Most coverage preceded a film's opening; opinions about its execution were harder to find, particularly on television.

"What Siskel and Ebert did was to pioneer the middle ground," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "They had a significant impact on film criticism."

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