RIP, Roger Ebert

Well this sucks. Just days after announcing that he’d be taking a leave of absence from his work to deal with cancer that had returned to his body – discovered after he fractured his hip last year – Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70.

Ebert, 70, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, and who was without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic, died Thursday in Chicago. He had been in poor health over the past decade, battling cancers of the thyroid and salivary gland.

He lost part of his lower jaw in 2006, and with it the ability to speak or eat, a calamity that would have driven other men from the public eye. But Ebert refused to hide, instead forging what became a new chapter in his career, an extraordinary chronicle of his devastating illness that won him a new generation of admirers. “No point in denying it,” he wrote, analyzing his medical struggles with characteristic courage, candor and wit, a view that was never tinged with bitterness or self-pity.

Always technically savvy — he was an early investor in Google — Ebert let the Internet be his voice. His had millions of fans, and he received a special achievement award as the 2010 “Person of the Year” from the Webby Awards, which noted that “his online journal has raised the bar for the level of poignancy, thoughtfulness and critique one can achieve on the Web.” His Twitter feeds had 827,000 followers.

Ebert was both widely popular and professionally respected. He not only won a Pulitzer Prize — the first film critic to do so — but his name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005, among the movie stars he wrote about so well for so long. His reviews were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers worldwide. [SunTimes]

I didn’t agree with him much about movies in recent years, but I always liked Ebert as a writer. He got a lot of flack for inventing the “thumbs up, thumbs down” system of reviewing movies, but I always saw that more as a hook to draw people in so they’d hear what he had to say than as an actual attempt to boil down complex reviews to a binary system. None of us really want to stamp a semi-meaningless letter grade or yes or no on the end of our complex thoughts on a film. But Ebert understood, even before RottenTomatoes, that people wanted reviews and ratings quantified, even if it was just in a superficial way, or as a hook to get them to read it. It’s a quirk of human nature, and he was just going with it. Much the same way the internet breaks things into lists not because internet writers love lists, but because something about the list format makes people more apt to read them. Obviously, he will be missed. Ebert still managed to outlive his old partner, Gene Siskel, who died in 1999 at 53, of a brain tumor. It’s sad to see so many film critics dying young. I blame our glamorous, devil-may-care lifestyle.

PS: I’ve seen countless news stories using pictures of Ebert post-jaw-loss to accompany the story of his passing. Really, you A-holes? You really think that’s how he’d want to be remembered, with most of his lower jaw missing from cancer? Somehow I doubt ithat.

PPS: I can’t believe I’d nearly forgotten this, but I do believe it was Roger Ebert who first introduced me (tangentially, via Drew Magary) to the wonderful work of Lindy West three years ago. Aw, and if I wasn’t feeling all squishy and sentimental about this five minutes ago, I certainly am now.

[be sure to check out his full obit over at his paper, the Sun Times. picture source = Shutterstock]