Like any great rivalry, the rivalry and later lucrative partnership between Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel and Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert has been scrutinized and debated over the past few decades, nowhere more fiercely than in this city. They searched the house.
The book, “Mutual Thumbs Up: How Siskel and Ebert Changed Movies Forever,” comes out October 24. This book is an astute account of how these two diametrically opposed Chicago media examples are no longer with us—Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999. 53; Ebert died of thyroid cancer in 2013 at the age of 70; he learned how to discuss movies on television and made several million in the process.
The author is Matt Singer, a critic, journalist, author, and long-time “obsessive Siskel and Ebert fan” (his words), best known as the editor of The Guardian magazine. screencrush.com website. If you watched the latest version of “Ebert Presents: At the Movies,” a movie review show that aired on PBS stations from 2010 to 2011, you may notice that Singer was a contributor to the segment.
This is his first-hand experience with the Ebert universe. Here’s mine: In 2007, I appeared on and off opposite co-host Richard Roeper after Ebert became ill. I then worked with Roeper for a few months and then co-hosted the final season from 2009-2010 with AO Scott (then chief film critic for the New York Times).
Two middle-aged white men in sweaters who can’t even agree on a movie: How Siskel and Ebert parlayed that formula into international stardom, with regular appearances on Letterman, Leno and other shows — is a good story, told masterfully and often movingly. Singer. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Question: Where did your relationship with these men begin for you?
A: When I was 14, in the summer of 1995. “Trainspotting” was mentioned at a show that summer, and there was a theater in Providence, Rhode Island — where I grew up in suburban New Jersey — that was showing Danny Boyle’s movie. I shouldn’t have been allowed in; I was the youngest 14-year-old boy to ever exist. But I was, and it blew my mind, and I have Siskel and Ebert to thank for that. I had been watching the show since I was probably 12 by then.
Question: As you do in your book, let’s go back to how they initially arrived at their own articles. Ebert was working on his doctorate at the University of Chicago and needed a job. Herman Kogan of the Chicago Daily News published several of Ebert’s freelance writings. Impressed, Kogan arranges a lunch at the Sun-Times for Roger and the two editors. A job offer is made for the Sun-Times Sunday magazine department, and even a dessert order is received. This was 1966, and Roger became a film critic the following year.
Two years later, Siskel is at the Tribune and film critic Clifford Terry is taking a one-year sabbatical for the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, and Gene moves on. There are two extremely competitive writers, Ebert and Siskel, who barely knew each other at the time and rarely spoke to each other. when you watch First episode You can’t get much of a push from competition on WTTW-FM’s first venture into production for public television, a project called “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” can you?
A.: It’s remarkable how little you earn. They didn’t really like each other in the beginning, in 1975, but it doesn’t actually appear that way on TV because it’s a total annoyance. Fascinating dilemma. What you see (in the pilot) is what the Siskel and Ebert impersonators later looked like, at least some of them.
(WTTW producer) Thea Flaum saw that, kept them together and together, saw the potential, and figured out how to bring such combative and fiery energy off camera to what they could do on camera. Both men always said he was the one who figured it out.
Question: In the book, you quote Letterman’s “Late Show” producer Rob Burnett as saying, “There was an undercurrent of disdain between the two of them, and that always struck me as very amusing.” That’s the question for many people, even those who know them well: How much of this disdain was real? I think a lot!
A: Many people I talked to said that things changed when Roger met and married Chaz Ebert in 1992. (Longtime Chicago media columnist) Robert Feder, who helped me a lot with the research, said this. I think it’s a cliché to say that Roger and Gene have a sibling rivalry. This is how they commemorated it. And that might be the best way to look at it. I currently have two children, almost 6 and almost 8 years old. I dedicated the book to them, and the dedication originally read “To Riley and Eloise.” I showed them the first copy of the book and a fight immediately broke out. Eloise, the younger one, said: “Why is her name first? Why not Mine name first?” And this fight over billing is what Roger and Gene were fighting about on the show! So I changed the dedication to this:
For Riley and Eloise
And for Eloise and Riley
(Like Gene and Roger, they both wanted their names to be first.)
Q: Your subtitle, “How Siskel and Ebert Changed Movies Forever,” is a bold claim. Talk to us more about this.
A: This is a bold claim. However, I think their impact and importance is great. They certainly influenced the way we talk about movies even today. When they appeared on television, they used their megaphones for the good of movies and the power of change. I think back in 1990, Entertainment Weekly had a list of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood. And Siskel and Ebert placed 10th behind Michael Eisner (then CEO of the Walt Disney Company, which owned the show in its most popular episode). He is behind Eisner, but ahead of their boss, Jeffrey Katzenberg (then head of Walt Disney Studios), who was more or less working at Disney at the time.
Q: You write in “Opposable Thumbs,” but while there’s no show like Siskel and Ebert’s on TV, “there are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of websites, podcasts, YouTube channels, message boards, and social media threads dedicated to discussing movies “We see it as a work of art, not as a commercial object.” “A more advanced version of what Siskel and Ebert created” emerged in their wake, you say, “with more focus on the movies and less on the arguments and harsh insults.”
A: Yes, and the complex legacy of the thumbs. I talk about this in the book. Certainly the studios loved thumbs up; they were valuable to them as marketing tools. But what they did (on the show) was complicated in many ways. They weren’t content with saying “I didn’t like this movie.”
Question: Both Roger and Gene had less than happy childhoods; Gene lost his parents when he was 10 years old, and Roger grew up as a very isolated child.
A: Roger talked about loneliness as a defining feature of his childhood. He didn’t have many friends. Mostly reading and then writing. There was a lot of melancholy in the beginning for both of them. And of course, in the end, I felt a lot of sadness for what happened to both of them. But then there’s everything that happens in between.
(Before writing the book proposal) I looked at Ebert’s memoirs and thought: This is a great book. But there are only three episodes about Siskel and Ebert. Maybe there’s room for a book like mine to exist.
“Cross Thumbs Up” author Matt Singer talks with the Tribune’s Michael Phillips on Nov. 28 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; www.siskelfilmcenter.org.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.