Auteur theorist Andrew Sarris proclaimed Max Ophuls’ opulent 1954 drama The Earrings of Madame de… his favorite movie of all time. The esteemed Pauline Kael once said her favorite film was Menilmontant, a silent French film from 1924. But a third critic whose influence on American audiences towered over the aforementioned New York intellectuals preferred something a little closer to home.
His cinematic masterpiece? Saturday Night Fever.
That critic was Gene Siskel, whose writing for the Chicago Tribune and television work as one half of the hugely successful Siskel & Ebert & the Movies duo helped change the way Americans talked about film. Born Jan. 26, 1946, Siskel would have turned 65 today, and we can now look back on his work as part of a bygone, golden age of film criticism in the American mass media.
When Siskel, a 23-year-old former Yale philosophy student, arrived at the Chicago Tribune in 1969, American film criticism basically fell into two camps. There were the lofty cinephiles writing for film journals and metropolitan arts and entertainment weeklies — critics generally dismissive of contemporary Hollywood studio fare, preferring European art films, documentaries and avant-garde works. And then there were the reviews that appeared in the daily newspapers, short missives that tended toward the breezy and blandly anonymous. Often they were written by a rotating cast of reporters and bylined with jokey pseudonyms such as, in the case of the Tribune, “May Tinee.”
In a memo arguing why he should get the recently vacated film desk job, young Siskel convinced his editor that a generation raised on television didn’t view movies the way their predecessors had — mainly as an avenue of cheap, escapist entertainment — but sought it out for greater depth and complexity. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, this same generation was producing work that demanded to be taken seriously, as directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas were taking American cinema in radical new directions.
Siskel’s thoughtful, plainspoken reviews proved popular with Chicago readers, and in 1975 a producer at the local public television station had the bright idea of pairing Siskel with another young critic at the Chicago Sun-Times named Roger Ebert. Their monthly show Opening Soon At a Theater Near You soon went weekly as Sneak Previews. It was an instant success, becoming one of the most popular PBS shows in history before it outgrew public television and was commercially syndicated first as At the Movies and later as simply Siskel & Ebert, a nod to the fact that the hosts had become household names.
Aside from the entertainingly antagonistic chemistry the Laurel-and-Hardy-like duo displayed, the show was the first to regularly focus with any real depth on new movies. Its influence over moviegoers was unequaled. A trademarked thumbs-up or thumbs-down could make or break a new film at the box office, a position that put the hosts on lists of the most powerful people in Hollywood — even if they spent all their time in Chicago film theater balconies.
Siskel and Ebert largely resisted becoming part of the same machinery whose products they critiqued. Instead they used their influence to champion filmic causes close to their hearts, doing segments on the evils of colorization, the necessity of letterboxing (formatting wide-screen movies to be viewed on standard TV screens without cropping the images), and the need for a non-X rating for adult-themed films (which helped create the NC-17 rating). They helped launch films that otherwise would have flown under the radar, propelling the low-budget documentary Hoop Dreams to national attention and an eventual Oscar nomination. In the age of the multiplex, Siskel also regularly wrote about screenings at The Film Center of the Art Institute of Chicago, which was renamed the Gene Siskel Film Center after his death.
After Siskel died suddenly Feb. 20, 1999, of a brain aneurysm, a saddened Ebert continued the show with a rotating cast of critics and film lovers before eventually settling on new co-host Richard Roeper, another writer (though not film critic) from the Chicago Tribune. While Roeper did an admirable job, the show lacked that magical chemistry of two rival film critics at the top of their games.
In the summer of 2008, Ebert and Roeper both walked away from At the Movies, unhappy with the direction the producers wanted to take the show. They weren’t alone in their discontent. When the new At the Movies debuted with hosts Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons, many lamented that the show had been dumbed down. Lyons in particular was subject to harsh criticism, both for his penchant for hobnobbing with the stars whose work he is supposed to be evaluating and for his near complete lack of qualifications as a critic.
The show was retooled again in 2009 with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott, but failed to find an audience and was cancelled. Roger Ebert has just taken over the show again, and debuted the newest version on Chicago public television, bringing the series full circle to the point of its inception.
As Siskel considered himself a newspaperman first and a TV personality second — even late in his career when his written output was limited to tiny capsule reviews — he would surely be dismayed with the state of newspaper film criticism today. Jobs are getting slashed at papers nationwide, studio execs boast (rightly) of their tentpole films being “critic proof.” Many younger viewers don’t bother reading even the online version of newspaper reviews, preferring metacritic or Rottentomatoes.com — sites which aggregate reviews to render a mathematical consensus – or niche sites like aintitcoolnews.com, which tends to focus on comic book adaptations and fanboy fare.
“The lengthening toll of former film critics acts as a poster child for the self-destruction of American newspapers,” Ebert wrote in a 2009 blog posting, reacting to the fact that AP News imposed a 500-word limit on all its entertainment writers and directed them to focus on celebrity dish. “We used to be the town crier. Now we are the neighborhood gossip. … The age of film critics has come and gone.”
On what would have been Gene Siskel’s 65th birthday, the balcony is closed in more ways than he could probably have imagined.