Editor’s Notes: This month marks the 40th Anniversary of Siskel and Ebert’s Television Debut.
Forty years ago this month, Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel and now legendary film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times Roger Ebert began a television show called Coming Attractions which changed names and stations over the 24 years they were on together, but what never changed was the format or the influence.
The show’s origins were documented in Steve James’ stellar documentary Life Itself, taken from the memoir of Ebert and both the book and the film show that the idea for the show was not Ebert’s or Siskel’s but that of local Chicago television producers. The show debuted on Chicago PBS/Public Access and neither critic was very enthusiastic. Neither particularly liked the other, though they didn’t really know one another. Siskel harbored some resentment toward Ebert because his paper made him use the star rating system because Ebert and the Sun-Times used it and they felt they needed to stay competitive. Originally titled Opening Soon…at a Theater Near You, both critics were very static and stiff. Neither seemed to quite know what to do, despite Siskel being a contributor on a local news channel.
Over time and a name change to Sneak Previews, the two became more comfortable on camera and with each other. A sort of antagonistic relationship formed between them, with jabs at each other’s appearances and at their taste in films. Everyone remembers the fights they had, how bitter they could get and how angry each could become, but what is often forgotten is how well they agreed. Neither one was so egotistical that they couldn’t say” You’re right” or that they agreed completely with the other.
Siskel and Ebert successfully popularized film criticism, something that before their shows was considered high-brow and inaccessible to the broad audience.
The two later left Sneak Previews, opting out of a contract they didn’t like, which led to the creation of At the Movies, which lasted from 1982-1986. Sneak Previews continued in syndication with different hosts, but never regained its footing after Siskel and Ebert left. After At the Movies, the pair went to another nationally syndicated show called Siskel & Ebert & The Movies which is where they stayed until Siskel’s death in 1999. Ebert continued on, first alone then with Richard Roeper until Ebert lost his ability to speak in 2006 due to cancer in his jaw. He would produce his own version with hand-picked critics, but that didn’t last long as it was self-financed in a time just before the notion of crowd-funding had really taken off.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter what the show was called. What mattered was that these two eloquent film critics were on TV once a week articulately talking about movies. What they did on their shows changed film criticism, brought it to everyone in the comfort of their own living room in succinct packets, giving general audiences an idea of what was good and bad at the movies that week. It showed that the discussion of film could be impassioned and well-drawn and combative at times and it showed that film criticism could be fun.
Siskel and Ebert were famous for their disagreements and that nature of the show was often played up when they were brought on late-night talk shows to sum up the year in film or just to promote a new season of their show. The host, be it Johnny Carson, David Letterman or Jay Leno, would try to provoke the two into an argument because it was what got the ratings.
The only show, apart from their own, to get the relationship the two had was an episode of The Critic, a (unfortunately) little known animated show from the creators of The Simpsons that starred John Lovitz as Jay Sherman, a New York film critic who hates everything he sees. The episode, titled Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice (itself a play on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the 1969 Paul Mazursky swinger film starring Elliot Gould, Natalie Wood, Robert Culp and Dyan Cannon) has Siskel and Ebert breaking up and auditioning new critics to take the other’s spots. Jay desperately wants to be paired with one of them (though possibly more with Ebert, so he can be called ‘The Skinny One’ for once) but he ultimately realizes that they need to be together to be happy and work well, as each of them are visibly pining after the other. In a scene lifted straight from Sleepless in Seattle, Jay reunites the star-crossed critics.
It made studying and analyzing films more commonplace and inspired people to dig deeper into film as art and entertainment.
This tender representation gets to the heart of what Siskel and Ebert were all about. Yes, they bickered and that bickering would sometimes delay the shooting of an episode, but the camaraderie they shared inspired an entire generation of film critics and filmmakers. Without their shows, coming into our homes once a week, many film critics of today would likely never started writing and forget the hundreds if not thousands of film review podcasts and YouTube channels.
There are those that lament the shows that Siskel and Ebert made because there is the notion that it cheapened film criticism. Those people felt that the only reason the shows got viewers was because of the sometimes explosive arguments the hosts would get into and that was not film criticism, that was sensationalism. They also felt that to encapsulate a film review into a few sentences on television wasn’t getting to the real heart of a film and that Siskel and Ebert contributed to dumbing down the very nature of film criticism (yet these are some of the same people who praised Leonard Maltin’s annual movie guide that features film reviews that were at times only a couple of sentences long, but I suppose as long as it was in print, it was okay to them).
These critics of Siskel and Ebert were wrong. Though I do see their point, and now more than ever the value of film criticism seems to be at an all-time low now that the internet has given voice to anyone who wants to use it, I think their criticisms were more out of jealousy than professional integrity. They weren’t famous, so they lashed out at the ones who were. It may not have been that petty, some may have genuinely felt that way, but the value of the shows far outweighs anything negative that came from it. Siskel and Ebert successfully popularized film criticism, something that before their shows was considered high-brow and inaccessible to the broad audience. It made studying and analyzing films more commonplace and inspired people to dig deeper into film as art and entertainment. Their shows were more than just guidelines on if you should go to one movie or another that weekend, it was a conversation starter for when you left the film, a blueprint on how films could be discussed because they didn’t just talk about if a movie was good or bad, throw their thumbs up or down and move on, they discussed what was good or bad about the film, be it heavy-handed direction or a great script or mediocre performances, the cinematography and the editing. They covered it all and gave people the tools to look at a film and begin to see it for the parts instead of just if the story was good and the actors were attractive. Without them and their shows, film criticism would have stayed in a subsection of the Arts section in the newspaper, read by intellectuals and glanced at by everyone else. Siskel and Ebert made film criticism something everyone felt they could contribute to and breathed new life into it, a new life that continues on after both have left us and one that will continue for many years to come.