Roger Ebert, two days before his death Thursday at age 70, turned an elegant phrase while reporting his plans to cut down on movie reviews amid a recurrence of the cancer that robbed him of the ability to speak.
He wasn’t taking a leave of absence, he noted, as much as a "leave of presence."
“What in the world is a leave of presence?” Ebert wrote in a blog post, one day before the 46th anniversary of his tenure as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. “It means I am not going away.”
His defiant words in the face of uncertainty stand as an appropriate final entry from a game-changing journalist and unlikely TV star who left an indelible mark on how we view movies – and movie reviewers. Until the end, Roger Ebert proved a strong, vibrant voice for film lovers, even after losing the power of speech.
For a guy known to millions of fans for sitting in the mock cinema sets of “Sneak Previews” and “At the Movies,” Ebert stood out as a champion of everyday moviegoers. The passion he and TV sparring partner Gene Siskel infused into their debates highlighted their disagreements, but ultimately underscored the one area in which they were in absolute accord: movies matter.
Ebert, of the scrappy Sun-Times, played the outspoken regular guy who loved popular fare while supporting more esoteric films we simply had to see. Siskel, from the stodgier Chicago Tribune, was no snob, but projected a cooler demeanor that would melt when Ebert pushed his buttons. Their sharp-tongued skirmishes, which sometimes included sarcastic attacks on Siskel’s lack of hair and Ebert’s excess of girth, often proved more entertaining than the flicks they rated with the turn of a thumb.
The critical and physical opposites didn't attract as much as create great chemistry, offering a starting point for our own boisterous discussions about the movies. Siskel and Ebert gave fans an accessible vocabulary for assessing films, and made us feel that our opinions mattered, presaging the Internet, where everybody's a critic.
After Siskel’s death in 1999, Ebert forged on. Even after cancer took his lower jaw in 2006, Ebert maintained his critical voice, not only in reviews published in the Sun-Times and other papers, but via Twitter and his blog. In his final post, Ebert noted that he penned 306 movie reviews last year – a personal record.
He also announced in the blog post plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund a revival of “At the Movies,” with new hosts to rate the latest films at a theater near you.
Ebert provided a great example to fellow critics, not just with his wit and love of film, but through his brave refusal to stay silent when it would have been easier to simply give up. Death finally took Roger Ebert’s unique voice, marking a sadly permanent leave of absence from the profession he and his partner transformed. But movie fans lucky enough to have seen Siskel and Ebert in action will forever feel their presence in the balcony.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.
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