Roger Ebert Changed How We See Movies, Says PEOPLE’s Film Critic

Roger Ebert, in 1975


updated 04/05/2013 AT 2:05 PM ET

originally published 04/05/2013 AT 2:30 PM ET

If it seems like a friend has died, that’s because Roger Ebert made us feel like we knew him. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose columns read like letters from a pal. He sat next to Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews and At the Movies, but it felt like he was just on the other end of our couches.

He democratized film criticism, fought passionately for better movies and showed us what living – and dying – with grace really meant.

If that’s not a friend, then maybe I’m unclear on the definition.

Back in 1975, when Ebert won that Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Chicago Sun-Times (the first movie critic ever to do so), film criticism was a clubby, snooty bastion. Many critics were sanctimonious blowhards, talking about semiotics and cinema theory, and they didn’t seem to care whether any of us who lined up at the box office on Friday nights were listening.

Ebert was different. He was on our side, writing boldly but elegantly about what he liked and what he didn’t – for prestige and popcorn pictures alike. He wasn’t shy to say when he loved a movie, swooning over E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Pulp Fiction in equal measure. But he was just as quick to say what he hated. (Or, in the case of Rob Reiner’s North, what he “hated, hated, hated, hated, hated.”) It honestly was that simple – and every critic working today knows just how hard that is to pull off.

The genius stroke was moving his act to TV. Ebert and Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel debuted Sneak Previews in 1975, reviewing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in their first episode. While other critics made grand pronouncements about cinema, these guys yelled about – pardon me, debated – movies. Passionately, hilariously, often loudly, they turned watching the people who watch movies into terrific entertainment.


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