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Geoffrey Macnab: Roger Ebert could be brutal, but he was always fair


Roger Ebert was an oracle among American film critics. His exalted reputation was primarily due to the fair-minded, open and articulate way in which he treated films of every sort in a reviewing career that lasted over 40 years.

One telling sign of his influence is that his reviews for the Chicago-Sun Times were always listed first on the Internet Movie Database.

Ebert wasn’t the greatest phrase maker. He didn’t eviscerate films in the way that, for example, Vincent Canby did in The New York Times. Nonethe- less, what he wrote was always detailed, persuasive and couched in language that anyone could understand. He could be brutal too. “This movie is $36 million thrown to the winds. It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I’ve seen Paint Your Wagon,” he wrote of Michael Cimino’s folie de grandeur Heaven’s Gate.” He didn’t much care for pretentiousness either.

He notoriously called Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny “the worst film in the history of Cannes,” but then eventually gave the film a respectful three-star review once Gallo recut it.

In the US, Ebert was a celebrity thanks to his television shows. The extent of his popularity was underlined last year when his friend Martin Scorsese announced that he was planning to produce a film about Ebert. This documentary, which will have an added poignance now, is to be based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir, Life Itself in which he detailed his fights against alcoholism and the thyroid cancer that eventually cost him his voice.

On screen, Ebert’s persona was avuncular. Given how balanced and sensible he seemed, it was a slight surprise that early in his career, he had written the screenplay for schlockmeister Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls.

Even at the end of his career, Ebert was admirably open to cinema that came from far  beyond the boundaries of Hollywood. He was one of the champions of Iranian Oscar winner A Separation (2011) and recently rhapsodised over director Michael Haneke’s study of old age, Amour.