The Accessible Icon: What Did Roger Ebert Mean to You?

The Accessible Icon: What Did Roger Ebert Mean to You?

Apr 05, 2013

When someone as famous and influential as Roger Ebert dies, it's about us as much as it's about him. This is not as selfish as it sounds; it's more about how selfless he was and how much he gave to the world instead of what he took from it. He was like a superman, protecting us daily from bad movies and inspiring us all to be better writers and moviegoers and human beings. With him gone, we wonder who is left to save the day. It helps that he was so approachable and kind and helpful. Many reactions to the news yesterday have been memories of when Ebert retweeted them or straight-out tweeted something they wrote or answered an e-mail they'd sent via his Answer Man column. 

"Good writing will prevail," he wrote me back more than a decade ago when I asked how a new critic can rise up while billions of opinions are spouted hourly on the Internet. Never mind that to some degree he was sadly mistaken. He was encouraging because he was good, not because he was right or wrong. Like statements in his reviews, his short reply to me was something he believed. And we respected those beliefs because we admired the way he presented them. Like listening to a magnificent minister deliver a great sermon regardless of whether we follow his religion. 

Yes, to us he was a clergyman in the church of cinema and a hero with words and an accessible icon in so many ways. He is someone we have lost, someone we now remember, introspectively as much as retrospectively. Of course he was accomplished on his own, for his numerous achievements. But in his passing we subjectively think about what he meant to and for and with us. And below I've collected many of these individual personal reflections about the most celebrated film critic of all time.

Here's what Roger Ebert was to and for us:


"Now, I hate those 'In Memoriam' pieces in which the writers overstate their closeness to the deceased... I'm most grateful for Roger's friendship, trust and generosity. As much as he lived his life in public, he was also intensely private. But he loved to gather people around him... I'm tempted to say that if Roger had never written a word, he'd be known for bringing people together. But the writing was what made Roger Roger. He wasn't just generous with those close to him. He told everyone a lot about himself -- sometimes, I think, more than he knew -- in the words he published: his reviews, his op-ed pieces, his interviews, his blog, his memoir -- even his tweets." - Jim Emerson, Scanners

"To me, Ebert was glimpse of a better life: He was proof there was a ticket out. I went to study journalism at the University of Illinois, simply, because I wanted to be Roger Ebert... I wanted to be him, desperately. My first day in Champaign, I showed up at the Daily Illini, where Ebert had been the editor-in-chief, and begged the entertainment editor to let me write movie reviews. He was the reason I did anything." - Will Leitch, Deadspin 

"I’ve had opportunities to introduce myself to Roger Ebert in recent years at film festivals, but I’ve always turned down the chance. Part of the reason is because I didn’t want to come across as one more adoring fan who gets all tongue-tied. But part of it is also that, like with Ebert’s reviews that I read as a kid, I prefer the image of the man I have in my head to the flesh-and-blood person. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Ebert personally, but still, my imaginary version of him is mine and mine alone, and I always wanted it to stay exactly that way." -  Tim Grierson, Paste

"When I was living in Virginia, Roger used to come up every other year to do one of his shot-by-shot movie deconstructions, and sign copies of the latest edition of his film guide. When I got my copy signed, Roger noticed my press badge, and asked me who I wrote for, and what I’d seen at the festival that I liked. In other words, he treated me like a peer, not like some small-timer. To me, he’s always been a model for how to behave in this business." - Noel Murray, A.V. Club

"This impacted me in ways that I really do not understand. I feel like I lost a friend, which I know is silly, because Ebert was not aware of my existence. But I like to think that if I met him, he would understand my constant struggle between my disease and dream of being a respected film critic, and I try to wonder what he would tell me." - Sam McDunna

"When I 'came out' as bipolar in a blog post last summer, Roger Ebert was one of the first people to offer encouragement. He told his Facebook followers about my piece and referred to me as 'courageous.' Not only was I flattered that he'd do such a thing, I was surprised that he was familiar with my writing at all. When I sent him an e-mail to thank him, he responded within an hour, and he shared a story about his own experience of being in therapy. By the indication of the many appreciations that have appeared since his death, such generosity was characteristic of Ebert." - Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader

"I’m not sure how old I was when I wrote Roger Ebert a letter asking for his advice on how to become a film critic, but judging from the other documents in the manila envelope where I’ve kept his response ever since, I must have been somewhere between 11 and 13. Ebert’s prompt and kind answer, typed on Chicago Sun-Times stationery using a typewriter with a wonky T key, took my query more seriously than it deserved, suggesting colleges with strong film programs I might consider, advising me to 'see all the good movies you can,' and most of all encouraging me to 'write-write-write for anyplace that will print your stuff.'" - Dana Stevens, Slate

"I know the same thing from my stories that I know from reading other people's: he was generous. It's such a boring word for what it describes. Maybe because 'generous' is sort of outwardly focused  - opens things up. It's a little vague. There was nothing diffuse in dealing with him, though. He was extremely focused, strongly himself, loyal to his thinking and his emotions. But he showed the best kind of confidence by being interested in and open to others." - Elizabeth M. Tamny, Cahiers Du Moment

"While there's no way of knowing whether he'd have remembered my name without those ever-present press badges, he always greeted me and was willing to chat. That seems to be the memory of so many people today: That someone who had reached the top of his profession, instead of becoming a standoffish jerk, was instead kind and inviting." - Scott Renshaw, City Weekly

"The more time I spent around Ebert the more he inspired me as a person rather than as a critic. He and Chaz were an incredible team, and great supporters of the arts and of young critics. Some in his position would have protected their lofty perch. Ebert was the opposite. Look at how many young voices he brought in to his website as Far-Flung Correspondents, and to 'Ebert Presents' as guest critics, and supported by linking to their work on Twitter, where he had hundreds of thousands of followers. He was endlessly generous and supportive." - Matt Singer, Criticwire

"I finally met Roger and his producer Andrea Gronvall at Sundance in 2001, and they could not have been any lovelier in terms of how they treated me. That was significant at that time because I had already gotten used to being treated like garbage by pretty much everyone from the old guard. The Internet was still seen as 'lesser' in those days, a goof, a place that generated nothing but weirdos.... Even today, some of those same people continue to treat me in person and in print like I'm some pretender who doesn't deserve to be part of the conversation, who love to attack and tear down. Not Ebert, though. He was incredibly encouraging, even when we would scrap in print." - Drew McWeeny, Hit Fix

"I met Roger — where else? — at the Cannes Film Festival. It was 1981, my first time there, the year of Chariots of Fire and Man of Iron. We were both booked at the same hotel, the Splendid, where proprietress Mme. Cagnat called him Ro-JAY AY-bear. He invited me to join the contingent of American movie critics at Le Pizza, a modest eatery on the harbor. Where some other colleagues were standoffish and pompous, Roger was friendly and inclusive, and he solicited my thoughts." - Carrie Rickey, Newsworks

"Dear Roger, I’m not going to pretend that we were close; nonetheless, you were my friend. You were generous and supportive, and I never properly expressed to you how much your generosity and support meant to me...Thank you for your friendship, and for the friendships I made through you. Thank you for your generosity, which meant more to me than I ever told you. I’m proud to say that I knew you." - Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Mubi

"In his first year as a film critic in 1967, he reviewed our very first film, Home for Life. In 1994, he and Gene Siskel became early impassioned, vocal supporters for our film Hoop Dreams in such an unprecedented way that it not only changed our lives, but forever altered public perception of the potential for documentary film." - statement from Kartemquin Films

"Here I had someone writing about my work who was a true enthusiast. His enthusiasm has kept me going over the years, and the memory of his enthusiasm will keep me going for as long as I make movies." - Errol Morris, via NPR


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