A Thumb Falls Silent: A Short Tribute to Gene Siskel

by James Berardinelli
February 22, 1999

Siskel & Ebert will go on, at least for the foreseeable future, but it will continue without one half of the popular duo. Gene Siskel, who died this past Saturday as a result of complications ensuing from brain surgery, announced earlier this year that he intended to take a leave of absence from his critical duties so that he could better heal and recuperate. According to a published statement, he hoped to return to Siskel & Ebert in the fall. Ultimately, circumstances dictated otherwise. News of Siskel's death came as something of a surprise, primarily because of the tenacity he had exhibiting in battling his illness. Following his May 1998 surgery to remove a growth, he was back to work within two weeks, watching tapes of movies from his hospital bed and calling in reviews to Siskel & Ebert by phone. Shortly thereafter, despite appearing wan, he was back in the balcony across the aisle from Ebert. His quick return was a testament to his fortitude, his love for movies, and his dedication to praising the worthwhile and deriding the refuse. Siskel was always passionate when it came to movies - you could hear it in his voice and see it in his eyes.

Siskel was only one of two men whose thumb spoke louder than his words. More often than not, movie ads featuring a recommendation from Siskel featured the words "Two Thumbs Up! -- Siskel & Ebert" (Or, if Siskel liked the film but Ebert didn't, "Thumbs Up! -- Gene Siskel"). An actual quote from Siskel, while not unusual, was more rare. Despite being a movie critic for 30 years, with print, television, and radio reviews to his credit, the direction in which Siskel's thumb pointed was what interested movie-goers the most.

Siskel and Ebert were first paired on television in the mid-'70s. The two, heated rivals at the time, were brought together to discuss and argue opinions on the air. The show was an immediate hit, and, in 1977, PBS syndicated Sneak Previews nationwide. In 1982, the duo, by then the most popular critics in America, moved on to the commercial At the Movies. Four years later, after they accepted a lucrative offer from Buena Vista, Siskel & Ebert was born. It has been going strong for 13 years. (The move to Buena Vista cost Siskel his post as film critic at the Chicago Tribune. Tribune Broadcasting, which had distributed At the Movies, was angered by the defection. The paper demoted him to film columnist, and his output became limited to "Flicks Picks," a weekly series of capsule reviews.)

Although Siskel & Ebert featured strong, pointed film criticism, that was not its lone (or, some would argue, its primary) attraction. The personalities of the reviewers, and their contentious chemistry, towered over everything. For the nearly quarter-century of their on-air pairing, the two had a sometimes antagonistic, sometimes friendly relationship. Their arguments became almost legendary. I have friends who watched the show in the hope that they would go for each other's throats. Much has been speculated about how well Siskel and Ebert got along off the air. Many believe that the tension between them was all a ruse, but, when asked, Ebert denied the charge. Last year, while he was in Philadelphia for a film festival, I asked him about his association with Siskel. "It is what you see on TV," he said, adding that, as with all long term relationships, he and Gene had their ups and downs, but they had grown to become friends and had a great deal of respect for each another. 25 years ago, they were bitter rivals, but their professional bond re-shaped their feelings for one another. Outside of Siskel's family, few will miss him more than Ebert.

Even for those who didn't know Siskel personally, the loss is a palpable one. Over the years of his association with Ebert, he became one of the world's most influential film critics. He was no longer just an ordinary man giving opinions on movies; but a celebrity and a cultural icon. Nothing was more valuable to a movie than a "Two Thumbs Up" review; nothing more discouraging than "Two Thumbs Down." (Although October Films, the distributor of David Lynch's Lost Highway, attempted to capitalize on the double negative by advertising the "Two Thumbs Down" as a selling point.) With new episodes of the half-hour television program on nearly every week of the year, Siskel and Ebert became familiar and welcome visitors into many American homes. Countless thousands trusted their views and looked forward to their unscripted banter and unrehearsed verbal jousting.

From time-to-time, Siskel and Ebert's close association with one another caused some viewers confusion about their identities. At the 1997 Toronto Film Festival, I was walking along a sidewalk with Ebert when we heard whispering behind us. Suddenly, in hushed tones, a man's voice said, "Hey, that's Siskel!" Ebert stopped in his tracks, turned around, and replied, "No, it's Ebert." Later that same day, at a theater concession stand, a cashier asked me, "Hey, is that Roger Siskel?" While I never had difficulty identifying them by name, it was a surprisingly common problem during the early days. That's why the mnemonic "Larger Roger, lean Gene" existed.

Perhaps the most famous disagreement Siskel and Ebert ever had was about the film Cop and a Half, which Siskel hated and Ebert accorded a "Thumbs Up." I'll never forget the look of incredulity on Siskel's face as Ebert gave his favorable pitch. The ensuing discussion was spirited, although not their most rancorous. It turned into an on-going joke, however, with Siskel often promising that some day he would get Roger to admit that it was a bad film. There was also one occasion (Broken Arrow) when Ebert's comments caused Gene to re-consider his review and change a "Thumbs Up" to a "Thumbs Down" on the air.

Pundits have argued for years whether Siskel & Ebert has been good or bad for film criticism. On the one hand, it brings a half-hour of legitimate reviews into American households every week (although there was more detail and insight during the Sneak Previews days, when commercials didn't cut into the commentary time). On the other hand, many argue that it reduces film criticism to a "yes" or "no" vote. In the end, however, almost everyone - other film critics, actors, directors, publicists, and the general public -agrees that Siskel and Ebert have forever changed the motion picture industry.

The tragedy of Siskel's untimely death is muted somewhat by the realization that, as with all writers, the bulk of his body of work will live after him. While not nearly as prolific as his partner, Siskel was nevertheless widely published. In the final analysis, he was a private person whose love for his family always took precedence over his other two passions (film and the Chicago Bulls), but, even for those who never met the man, it's possible to get a clear impression of him by studying his body of work. All but the most accomplished dissemblers reveal their genuine selves through their writing, and, above all, Gene Siskel was genuine. For more than twenty years nationally and an extra ten locally in Chicago, Siskel was a bulwark of film criticism - a comfortable and familiar face and voice. Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, his consistency was such that, given his opinion about a film, it was possible to determine with uncanny accuracy how you would feel about it. For those who are selective about the movies they see, that's a crucial quality to seek out in a film critic, and one that many lack.

Gene Siskel will be missed.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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