ROGER EBERT (1942-20013)
Like so many other young cineastes, I loved and hated Roger Ebert. I was only 8 when Sneak Previews started turning up on PBS stations, but I was a regular viewer by junior high.
To be honest, I always liked Siskel a little better and I never really forgave Ebert for his dismissal of Full Metal Jacket, a film I know in my heart is flawed.
At some point, I picked up a signed copy of his first book, A Kiss Is Still A Kiss.
It's autographed to Leslie. Ebert wrote an exclamation point after the title, and added "and you should hear about a sigh . . . Thanks, Roger Ebert 10.12.84"
He probably signed a thousand copies that way.
I had a brief but meaningful interaction with Ebert myself in 2001. Like a lot of people, I purchased the newly remastered Citizen Kane dvd and was delighted by the presence of two audio commentaries. One was by Welles-loving, ascot-wearing Peter Bogdanovich. The other was Ebert's.
Approximately five minutes into his commentary (00.05.38), Ebert draws attention to the "backward language" in the "News On the March" newsreel that gives viewers much needed information on the newly deceased Charles Foster Kane:
"To forty-four million U.S. news buyers, more newsworthy than the names in his own headlines, was Kane himself, greatest newspaper tycoon of this or any other generation."
Ebert says it's "a little dig at Times-style" and goes on to remind listeners "there was a famous parody of Times-style in The New Yorker in which E. B. White wrote, 'backwards ran sentences until reeled the mind.'"
Except it wasn't E. B. White at all. It was Wolcott Gibbs.
I don't know what possessed me, but I actually emailed Ebert and pointed out his error. I don't have his response in front of me, but he was very gracious and said something like, "Wolcott Gibbs, of course! How could I forget?"
I told him I enjoyed his Kane commentary and fans would probably snap up any feature-length commentaries he saw fit to record. He thanked me, told me it sounded like a lot of work.
This was 12 years ago, in the pre-podcast era. Nowadays, everyone's doing it.
So Ebert's gone and there won't be any additional emails or personalized books.
It's been a few years since I've watched Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Meyer, 1970), the one produced screenplay Ebert wrote. I'll probably watch it again over the weekend, if only to hear Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell (John LaZar)utter the immortal, "This is my happening and it freaks me out!"
The movie is impossibly campy, about what you'd expect from a Russ Meyer production. But it's got the music of Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Carrie Nations and a cast of eccentrics.
"Nothing could be too outlandish, obvious, stereotyped, cliched, gaudy or extreme," wrote Ebert. "The basic thrust behind Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Meyer said more than once, was to leave the audience wondering what had hit it."