I don’t know Matt Singer, author of “Overwhelming Thumbs Up: How Siskel and Ebert Changed Movies Forever” by the Tribune’s Michael Phillips, published Oct. 24. recently praisedhe calls it “a good story told masterfully and often movingly.”
This assessment is correct up to a point. But I wanted more. And that’s my problem.
Again, I didn’t know Singer, but I knew Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (and worked and socialized with both), as well as many other people who peppered and played both major and minor roles in the lives of this remarkable couple. 352 pages of this book.
Singer told Phillips that as he prepared to submit an offer to his literary agent, “when he looked at Ebert’s memoirs, he thought: This is a great book. But there are only three episodes about Siskel and Ebert. Maybe there is room for a book like mine to exist.”
This “maybe” convinced Singer’s manager and GP Putnam’s Sons, who published the book. It consists of 12 chapters except the introduction and epilogue. It’s filled with many details of the television phenomenon that emerged when the Sun-Times’ Ebert was paired with the Chicago Tribune’s Siskel on movie review TV shows.
Under a number of different titles (the first being “Opening Soon at a Theater Nearby”), the show proved hugely influential and made the unlikely duo rich and famous. Singer energetically tries to get behind the myths, assumptions, and theories in trying to explain how this happened. She interviews many people, many of whom were involved in the production of the shows.
And we get it, as Singer writes: “Disagreements over the pronunciation of foreign filmmakers’ names were not uncommon on set… but often escalated into all-out brawls. Disagreement among the program crew over Gene and Roger’s pronunciation of the word glove is legendary – although to this writer’s knowledge there is only one correct pronunciation of ‘gauntlet’.”
I’m afraid there’s no way to explain exactly what makes Ebert and Siskel work, but there’s a lot to be gained from Ebert’s research. “Life Itself: A Memoir” It’s a wonderful book, a self-reflective masterpiece, much of it taken from the blog he started many years ago.
He writes: “I didn’t want (my blog) to drift into autobiography, but there is a tidal drift in blogging that pushes you in that direction. Some of these words first appeared in blog form after being rewritten and expanded. Many are here for the first time. “They wash away in a flood of relief.”
I remember Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss once described their show as “a sitcom about two guys living in a movie theater.” And Singer offers an interesting story, told to him by Ebert’s widow Chaz, about how some TV executives actually floated the idea of a sitcom based on fictionalized versions of the two critics, or a show that would “star” them. Both of these efforts, which were never made, thank God, were titled “Best Enemies.”
Chaz Ebert is a valuable source for the book, as is Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen. I know and love both women; I wish they had been encouraged to say more about the nature and character of the men they loved.
Longtime media critic Robert Feder has some sharp observations here, as does Richard Roeper, a longtime TV sitter alongside Ebert. Phillips also has some kind words and thoughts to share. After Roger lost his voice after surgeries, my voice was used to read Ebert’s remarks in his television reviews, as were those of his friend Bill Kurtis. We were both honored to do this.
Of course, we are small players. But after reading Singer’s book, many memories came to mind, which led me to rewatch Steve James’s intimate documentary based on Ebert’s memoirs and its heartbreaking access to some of Ebert’s final days.
I also re-read the obituaries of both men and another. About Tim WeigelHe was Siskel’s roommate during his freshman year at Yale, and in one of the most mind-boggling coincidences I’ve ever encountered, he himself died of brain disease in 2001.
I guess in doing all of this I was trying to do what Singer was trying to do, which is to explain the magic of Siskel and Ebert. Like him, I failed to realize that some mysteries had no explanation. Maybe some mysteries are miracles.
I was reminded of something Ebert said when I called him for comment on an obituary I wrote following Siskel’s very untimely death at the age of 53: “I remember when we first started out and we came to an agreement. He was on the talk show and this old actor Buddy Rogers said to us: : ‘Your problem is that there is rivalry between siblings.’ “We did. He was like a brother to me and I loved him that way.”
Ebert also said, “How senseless was hatred, how deep was love.”
And that should be good enough for me.