Just yesterday, Roger Ebert announced that he would be taking a "leave of presence" from his longstanding post at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he served as film critic for 46 years. "I am not going away," Ebert wrote. "I'll be able at last do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review."
Today, the Sun-Times announced that Ebert has passed away, issuing a two-line obit that captured the clean, economically witty spirit of his criticism: "Roger Ebert loved movies. Except for those he hated." He was 70 years old.
Ebert's passing comes after a long struggle against cancer, dating back to 2002 when he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. In 2006, Ebert underwent surgery to remove further cancer, resulting in the removal of a piece of his jawbone. He lost the ability to speak, but continued to write, estimating that he was still penning an average of 200 reviews annually. Last year, he wrote 306 - a personal record.
Ebert began his career at the Sun-Times in 1967. He rose to prominence in the mid-70s when he and rival Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel began co-hosting Sneak Previews for Chicago public TV. Their on-air relationship continued in one form or another until 2010, best remembered in its nationally syndicated form as At The Movies and later, Siskel & Ebert. Together, Ebert and Siskel were known for their conflicting views, convivial banter, and thumbs up/thumbs down rating system. After Siskel's passing in 1999, Ebert continued the show with fellow Sun-Times writer Richard Roeper.
As an author, Ebert published extensively, from collections of reviews both good films (the Great Movies series) and not-so-good films (I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie and Your Movie Sucks), to a book on director Martin Scorsese, and an autobiography, Life Itself, released in 2011.
Ebert's criticism was marked by a kind of relative populism. His grades were not necessarily yoked to the particularities of his own taste, but how he felt a film played to its presumed viewer. (In his extra-withering review of North, Ebert wrote that he not only hated the film but "the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.") This approach often put him at odds with prevailing critical attitudes - he famously scorned now certified American classics like David Lynch's Blue Velvet and John McTiernan's Die Hard - while never marking him as a snooty contrarian.
For film critics, buffs, or even casual moviegoers debating what to see on a Friday night, Ebert's opinions were invaluable. He proved that daily paper reviews and syndicated TV criticism could be as intelligent as they are accessible. Most importantly, Ebert always managed to put across an abundant, infectious love for the movies. Even when he hated, hated, hated them.