Siskel and Ebert

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Siskel and Ebert

Gene Siskel (1946-1999) and Roger Ebert (1942—) are to film criticism what Arnold Palmer and Julia Child were to golf and cooking respectively. They popularized a formerly stuffy discipline and made it accessible to masses of people. Long after Bosley Crowther, Pauline Kael, and other highbrow critics made reviewing movies an art form, this Mutt and Jeff duo, through their nationally syndicated television program, made it a spectator sport.

Siskel and Ebert established their critical bona fides writing for rival Chicago tabloids. They began their strange odyssey together in 1975, when producers at PBS station WTTW invited them to co-host a weekly film review program. Though initially reluctant, the two men eventually were persuaded that their mutual hostility might make for good television. The series began its run under the name Opening Soon at a Theater Near You and was wisely retitled Sneak Previews.

The show's low budget allowed the hosts to do little more than air a succession of clips and bicker about the latest theatrical releases, which they then rated with a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" in the old gladiatorial tradition. To everyone's surprise, Sneak Previews became a huge local hit and was broadcast nationally beginning in 1978. It quickly became the highest rated series in PBS history. On the surface, the show's appeal lay in the cocktail party simplicity of its premise: two guys sitting around arguing about the merits of the latest crop of movies. But the clash of personalities allowed viewers to feel like they were eavesdropping on a private argument, as the opinionated co-hosts flung invectives at each other. Siskel was arguably the more intellectual of the two. Lean and birdlike, he combed the few thin wisps of hair he had left over the bare crown of his head. Ebert was the people's favorite, a beefy failed screenwriter who amazingly chose not to expunge his name from the credits of the soft-core porn turkey Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Together they were like oil and water, soon referred to nationwide as "the bald one" and "the fat one."

In 1982, Siskel and Ebert outgrew PBS and moved their show into commercial syndication, retitling it At the Movies. Along the way, the show lost some of the ramshackle charm of the original. The "Dog of the Week," a feature honoring the week's worst low-budget film release, was replaced by the "Stinker of the Week" and later scrapped entirely. New segments were created to highlight home video releases, a sop to the program's new bourgeois commercial audience. At the Movies went through a second, tortuous retitling, to Siskel & Ebert & the Movies before settling on the prosaic Siskel & Ebert.

With increased popularity came greatly enhanced power. Woody Allen and Eddie Murphy were just two of the stars who railed publicly about the pair's ability to sink a picture with a bad review. On the flipside, the encomium "two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert" soon became prized by publicists all over Hollywood. When they gave their stamp of approval to more outre film fare (both loved 1994's Pulp Fiction, for example) it gave mainstream America permission to check it out as well. Their critical criteria—they both put a great emphasis on likability of characters—influenced many mainstream reviewers, as did their show's format (they spawned a host of imitators). Siskel and Ebert became late-night talk show mainstays and frequent targets of parodies like In Living Color's cheeky "Men on Film."

The pair continued to host a weekly show and to pop up from time to time on the talk show circuit into the late 1990s. Both men continued to write their weekly reviews in the (Chicago) Tribune and Sun-Times, respectively. Ebert enjoyed a profitable sideline as the nominal writer of an annual movie reference guide. In 1998, the program even survived a leadership crisis when Siskel underwent an emergency brain operation to remove an unspecified growth. He emerged only slightly worse for wear, his hopeless comb-over an apparent casualty of surgery and his cognitive skills only slightly diminished. Ebert seemed barely to notice the changes, taking Siskel's slowness on the draw as an excuse to lace into his reviews with renewed ferocity. In February of 1999 Siskel died from complications linked to his brain tumor; he was 54.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Bernstein, Fred. "Tough! Tender! Gritty! Evocative! Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert Live to Dissect Films—and Each Other." People Weekly. August 20, 1984.

Ebert, Roger. Roger Ebert's Book of Film. New York, W.W. Norton, 1996.