Two Thumbs Up: Ebert & Roeper’s Critical Successes

Both Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper gained attention as critics while working for the Chicago Sun-Times. But beyond their simple thumbs up and thumbs down review system, it was their consistent opinions and admiration for cinema, their ability to create their own art while reflecting on the art of others, that made them timeless icons. One of the most successful elements of At The Movies, their weekly review program hosted on the ABC network, was their ability to disagree while maintaining valid opinions and on-the-nose commentaries. The duo became an iconic pairing, the Statler and Waldorf of the film world, the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern of Hollywood.

Though Roeper was a later edition after the passing of Gene Siskel, Roeper was able to stand out through his preference of political films and his admiration for the sometimes seedier underbelly of cinema. Together, the duo was much more calculated and friendly than the famous rivalry and heated opinions of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, but together, the duo managed to comment on some of the most popular and influential films of cinema. Through their love of journalism, their ability to pin-point perfection, and their passion for film itself, the duo was able to create one of the most iconic review shows in both film and television history.

Journalistic Journey

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Roger Ebert was born in Urbana, Illinois and throughout his career, he was known and admired for retaining his Mark Twain-esque midwestern voice that made him one of the more relatable critics in film history. He started his career in journalism while still in high school while he worked for The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois and later as a reporter for the Daily Illini. After earning his master’s degree in English from the University of Cape Town, he was accepted as a PhD student at the University of Chicago. While earning his doctorate, he earned a job with the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966, a move that would sustain his entire career along with a lifetime’s worth of cinema reviews. He gained recognition for several early reviews of genre-establishing horror films which included one for Night of the Living Dead which managed to find its way into an issue of reader’s digest. He then started to work in cinema directly, co-writing the feature film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up!, and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. In 1975, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Roeper followed a similar journalistic trajectory. Born in Chicago, he attended Illinois State University where he earned his degree in Journalism. He first started working for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1987 and covered a variety of topics ranging from politics to media and entertainment. He also gained recognition as an author and published several books on controversial topics including Urban Legends and Conspiracy Theories. These included: Hollywood Urban Legends: The Truth Behind All Those Delightfully Persistent Myths of Films, Television, and Music and Debunked! Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century. He gained further attention through radio and television appearances on programs like the Howard Stern Show, The Tonight Show, and The O’Reilly Factor, the latter of which earned him several Emmys.

Defining Cinema

Both Ebert and Roeper had a unique way of defining cinema. While their weekly reviews often consisted of whatever films were being released, they would also create unique end-of-year and end-of-decade lists that could prioritize some of the greatest advancements, successes, and monumental moments in film throughout the years and decades. A majority of their lists have withstood the test of time. Ebert had selected Apocalypse Now as his favorite film of 1979 and predicted the career of both Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman by highlighting Being John Malkovich in 1999 and Synecdoche, New York in 2008. Roeper has also solidified his reputation at selecting timeless films as well, choosing to highlight The Departed in 2006, Inception in 2010, and Boyhood in 2014. But while many of their picks fall into the timeless relevance and importance of film history, several other picks seem to stand out as overlooks of the time. Ebert once stated his regret of picking Scenes from a Marriage in 1974 over Polanski’s Chinatown, and spoke about similar regret when he ranked Small Change above Taxi Driver in 1976. Roeper had similar reflections throughout his career as well, selecting lesser known films as his favorite of the year like Brothers in 2009 and In America in 2003.

Passion for the Theater

Beyond all disagreements, differing views, or cinema speculations, one thing both Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper had in common was their love of cinema. Both dedicated their lives to reviewing movies and creating their own art out of their responses to other people’s works. Their ability to shape the culture and lend a guiding hand to audiences across the world helped to introduce a wide range of movies to a diverse group of audiences. When Roger Ebert passed away from cancer in 2013, he was memorialized by some of the most prevalent members of culture. President Barack Obama stated, “Movies won’t be the same without Roger.” A variety of other critically-acclaimed directors spoke of his honor as well including Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. Throughout Ebert’s career, he won several critic awards as well including a Directors Guild of America Award as an Honorary Life Member, a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, and two Chicago Emmy Awards in 2005 and 1979.

Richard Roeper is also known for his recognition throughout film culture. He has hosted programs with acclaimed directors including Kevin Smith, Aisha Taylor, and Jay Leno. He continues to work as a journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times publication, writing entertainment articles ranging from newly released films to debuting television programs. His recent reviews have revolved around a critique of M. Night. Shyamalan’s latest film Old and a positive preview of the Val Kilmer documentary. His recent list of favorite films from 2021 so far have included A Quiet Place Part II, The Water Man, Nobody, No Sudden Move, In the Heights, and Cruella. He has also continued his career through his work as a film critic for ABC-7’s “Windy City Live”.

Both Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper have shaped a culture of criticism that has spawned audience endorsed websites like Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic. Their ability to create controversial stances on cinema has also inspired audience-driven apps like Letterboxd, Taste, and Itcher. And now, in a world where everyone considers themselves a critic with sites like Yelp, the true value of a cultural commentator is starting to lose its prestige. But through articulate and engaging reviews, all disguised under the binary code of a thumbs up / thumbs down approach, both Ebert and Roeper were able to contribute a vast amount of passion and influence into the film industry, more than any director, auteur, or screenwriter could offer themselves.

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Sources: Time, ChicagoTribune, AustinChronicle, ScreenRant, NYTimes, YouTube, Biography, RogerEbert, SunSigns, UniversityofIllinois, IMDb, Pulitzer, ChicagoSunTimes, WSJ

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