Q1 2024

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 50 of 63

51 W I N T E R Q 4 I S S U E B O O K R E V I E W every page. Singer's attention to specifics is admirable, but at times the deluge of names, d a te s, a n d n u m b e rs i s ove r w h e l m i n g, especially when listened to in audio form. Nostalgic fans of Siskel and Ebert may be the only readers to welcome all this detail. "Opposable Thumbs" is especially good at explaining the various origin stories of "At the Movies," the first incarnation of a movie review television show featuring Sis- kel and Ebert. Many people were involved with the idea for a program that would feature the film critics of Chicago's two rival newspapers. Ebert worked at the Chicago Sun Times for 47 years, winning a Pulitzer Prize along the way. Siskel wrote for the competing Chicago Tribune, and the two were fierce rivals. While several individuals could lay claim to having thought up the show, it was Thea Flaum, the co-producer of "At the Movies," who transformed the failure of the show's pilot into a success by grooming two newspaper men into television personalities. Singer gives her due credit, noting that without Flaum, there would be no "Siskbert." Siskel and Ebert were popular, not for their erudite analyses but because of who they were, and espe- cially who they became when they were together. Viewers tuned in to their shows partly for the reviews and partly for the film clips. At that t i m e, c l i p s we re n o t u n i ve rs a l l y available and had to be edited by the show's sta from actual reels of film to help bolster the reviews. But what really captivated audiences was the verbal sparring between the two men, who at least at first openly disliked each other. When Siskel scooped Ebert and landed a choice interview, Siskel would say, "Take that, Tubby." In time, they developed a respectful friendship, and Sis- kel's daughters were flower girls at Ebert's wedding to Chaz Hammel in 1992. W h i l e t h e b o o k co ve rs t h e i r e n t i re careers, it focuses on the 1970s and 1980s when the two were at the peak of their popularity and, as Singer points out, "The New Hollywood" was sucking attention away from traditional studio fare. Films by young directors Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Henry Jaglom, Michael Cimino, John Cassavetes, Joan Micklin Silver, and others filled the screens with new ideas and controversial material. Siskel and Ebert en- couraged that "New Hollywood" energy. An appendix oers a list of films that the duo championed over the years but which never resonated with a wide audience. Although not all are listed by Singer, these included "Personal Best" (1982, dir. Robert Towne), "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" (1981, dir. Lamont Johnson), "Swamp Thing" (1982, dir. Wes Craven), "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" (1990, dir. James Ivory), and "Brother's Keeper" (1992, dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky), among others. "Opposable Thumbs" also includes juicy trivia like Gene Siskel's fascination with "Saturday Night Fever" (1977). Eventually seeing the f ilm 17 times, the critic was apparently able to harangue director John Badham about continuity errors. Siskel pur- chased one of John Travolta's suits from the film at a charity auction in 1978 for around $2,000 — and he sold it at a Christie's auc- tion in 1995 for $145,000. S i n ge r t r i e s h a rd to m a ke t h e ca s e for Siskel's and Ebert's importance, and h e s u cce e d s i n e s ta b l i s h i n g t h e w i d e - spread fondness audiences had for their decades-long TV shows. He does an impec- cable job of corralling thousands of facts, dozens of people, and hundreds of inter- views and reviews to write what is, for now, the definitive book on Siskel and Ebert. The popularity of the two is undeniable, espe- cially once their show went into syndication in 1982 as "At the Movies"; the title was soon changed to "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies," and then simply to "Siskel & Ebert." After Gene Siskel's death at age 53 in 1999, Ebert continued with a variety of partners, but the bristling chemistry that made must-see television out of two verbally sparring men was gone. The shows' thumbs up/thumbs down reviews may have affected the box office success of some f ilms — or the careers of a few f ilmmakers. Perhaps the most d r a m a t i c e x a m p l e w a s R o g e r Ebert's support for the feature d o c u m e n ta r y " H o o p D re a m s " (1994, dir. Steve James). As he wrote, "'Hoop Dreams' … is not o n l y a d o c u m e n ta r y. I t i s a l s o poetry and prose, muckraking and expose, journalism and polemic. It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime." Ebert was part of the charge against The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when "Hoop Dreams" was not nominated for an Oscar, an omission that con- tributed to a complete revamping of the Academy's documentary nomination process. While Siskel also felt that a nomination was justified, he more practically stated that the controversy, stemming from distributor Ira Deutchman, helped make the film financially successful. Their admiration for this film was likely increased by the fact that the film's subjects and filmmakers, like Siskel and Ebert them- selves, came from Chicago. Critics have not and do not change mov- ies forever. While the popularity of Siskel and Ebert on television made them power- ful national influencers, claiming that one (or two) critics could change the long-term course of movies is not a credible argument. Criticism of any form is by nature a reflec- Siskel would get a scoop and tell Ebert: 'Take that, Tubby.'

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of CineMontage - Q1 2024