My Rolodex card for Roger Ebert, c. 1982.
In the outpouring of appreciations and reminiscences after the death of film critic Roger Ebert, my little tale is really not much. I am adding it because I believe that even a brief encounter – at least this one – is worth remembering.
Before my story, which is quite short, I should explain who Ebert was at that time, which is so very different from movie criticism today that people who didn’t experience it might not understand why he was given such great esteem.
In the 1970s, when Ebert and his cross-town Chicago rival Gene Siskel began reviewing movies on TV (first as “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You” and retitled “Sneak Previews’), film viewing and film reviewing were almost unimaginably different than they are now.
Until the late 1970s, there were no home videocassette recorders and obviously no video stores. Some movies were difficult – if not impossible – to see. Films like the Marx Bros.’ “The Cocoanuts” and the Paul Muni gangster picture “Scarface” had been out of circulation for a generation for various reasons. They weren’t lost. It was even worse. They were locked up in a vault with no way to see them.
Let me say this again, for the benefit of anyone born since the 1970s.
In those days:
There was no Redbox.
There was no Hulu
There was no YouTube.
There was no Netflix.
There was no TCM.
There was no imdb. Just Leonard Maltin’s annual handbook of films and (for a few people, anyway) the competing annual compiled by Steven Scheuer.
There were no video stores.
There were no videocassette recorders.
And obviously, it was impossible to “wait until it comes out on video.” Because there was no video.
Unless you lived in Los Angeles and had the Z Channel (b. 1974) the only ways to see a classic film were in the occasional revival of an old blockbuster like “Gone With the Wind” or “Fantasia,” or head films like “Reefer Madness”; brutally butchered and speeded up (excuse me “Edited for Television”) and loaded with ads for used cars and sofa-sized paintings on some late-night TV show; or in a 16-millimeter print at some university film series. Or if you were a wealthy collector, you bought prints from mail order catalogs that seemed to feature nothing but B-Westerns and Hedy Lamar’s “Ecstasy.”
These were dark days, young readers. I remember one 1970s showing at the New Loft in Tucson in which the 35-millimeter print of “To Have and Have Not” was so beat up that it would barely go through the projector. They actually gave away bits of the print – full of sprocket holes down the middle — as souvenirs.
Unless you lived in a major city like Los Angeles (I did not), first-run movies came and went in a matter of weeks and might or might not end up in a second-run theater or a drive-in. A struggling art house near the university might scrape along running foreign films for one-week engagements with revivals of W.C. Fields on the weekend.
And, with a few exceptions, these were one-screen movie theaters. The 16-screen megaplex had yet to be introduced.
So much for film.
Movie reviewing was just as tightly restricted as movie-going in that era. In every U.S. city with a daily morning newspaper or two (and in many cases an afternoon paper as well), the local movie critic had an absolute stranglehold on film. A few avid movie-goers might wait to read Pauline Kael’s weekly review in the New Yorker or perhaps pick up a New York Times for Vincent Canby’s thoughts. Or there might be a local underground/alternative weekly with random reviews of films and rock concerts buried between tons of ads for water beds, stereo equipment and escort services.
But the vast majority of movie-goers were dependent on the local newspaper critic – possibly an aspiring screenwriter who conned the all-too-often clueless editors into a job because he “knew something” about movies; a foreign film enthusiast who looked down on mainstream pictures; or a newsroom old-timer who was put out to pasture writing about movies and hadn’t seen a film since Deanna Durbin retired and provided an endless stream of blurbs for movie ads.
Into this dismal landscape walked Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who were basically two average guys talking about movies in an entertaining way and proving what most of us knew all along: that almost anybody can be a film critic – an idea that has since been proved a million times by the Internet.
The appeal of Siskel and Ebert was that they were average. They were accessible. They weren’t foreign movie snobs. They weren’t suckers for the “flavor of the week” movie being hyped by the studios. They were two ordinary guys with informed opinions who were free to disagree about movies, which they frequently did.
And they were a sensation.
Here’s where I come in.
In the early 1980s, in the ancient and now-forgotten era when American newspapers still considered arts coverage important, I was hired as a classical music critic at the Arizona Daily Star. There was a TV critic, movie critic, drama critic, rock/pop music critic, a freelance art critic and someone who would be drafted to write about the small and invariably struggling dance companies and review the annual performance of “The Nutcracker.”
There were more than enough movies for the regular critic to review and leftovers were shared among the other aspiring film critics on the staff. I usually got the bottom of the barrel (I think the only decent movie I ever reviewed was “Return of the Secaucus Seven”). More often it was something like “The Beastmaster” or the remake of “The Thing.” The worst, as I recall, was “The Beach Girls,” which was so low-budget we never got a press kit and I had to copy the cast list from the poster outside the theater.
About that time, Jerry Lewis was testing a movie, then titled “Smorgasbord,” in Tucson after it had not done well in Los Angeles. To pump the movie, the producer was offering a face-to-face interview in Las Vegas. Our main movie critic wisely demurred. Did I want a free trip to Las Vegas to interview Jerry Lewis? I was young and dumb, so I said sure. (This was in the days when some small papers used press junkets as rewards and has been discontinued due to ethical concerns).
The story of my interview with Jerry Lewis will have to wait for another day. (And yes, I did ask about “When the Clown Cried” — update: That’s “The Day the Clown Cried.”) It is something to find out that a childhood hero (I will admit to seeing “Cinderfella”) is a 40-karat jerk, to put it mildly. I felt sorry for the very kindly producer, Arnold Orgolini, who really took some abuse from Lewis for interrupting his day to do an interview for his dreadful movie.
In the interview, Lewis had strong and rather strange opinions about movie critics. I did a lot of prep work, knowing that he would be difficult, and I learned that he – and his ever-present posse – believed that movie critics never see films; they merely write reviews from the press kits. I don’t know where he got that idea, but it was a deeply held belief.
The only two critics he respected were Roger Ebert and (as I recall) Pauline Kael. Because, he said, they only saw two movies a week and had time to reflect on them and distill their thoughts.
So when I got back to the office I called Ebert just to get a comment. Understand that at the time, he was major movie critic and I was a hick from the sticks calling about a Jerry Lewis movie. Not exactly “Francois Truffaut on Line 1, Mr. Ebert.”
What I will always remember about Ebert was that he very cordial and collegial.
”Did he record the interview?” Ebert asked. Oh yes. It was apparently done to make sure I quoted him correctly. Lewis must have a zillion cassettes of interviews by now. I wonder what he has done with them all.
Ebert assured me that Lewis was wrong and that he saw far more than two movies a week.
And Ebert said something like this: “It is not a myth that the French are crazy about Jerry Lewis. I have been at Jerry Lewis movies in France. He was doing things that I did not find particularly amusing. But the people in the audience were literally collapsing in the aisles. It is true.”
And in response to Lewis’ belief that movie critics write reviews from press kits – especially his movies, Ebert said: “I have witnesses!”
In the intervening years, with the advent of megaplexes, VCRs, DVDs, DVRs and the Internet, movie-going and movie reviewing have changed dramatically. I cannot think of anyone today who even approaches the influence of Siskel and Ebert in their prime. In fact, Ebert without Siskel, who died in 1999, had far less prominence, like Laurel without Hardy or Abbott without Costello.
It was a short conversation a long time ago, but I will always remember how pleasant and friendly he was to a very small-time writer at a very small-time paper. Really, the best thing about interviewing Jerry Lewis was that I got to talk to Roger Ebert.