Siskel and Ebert on movie reviewing and “political correctness”

February 21, 2022 • 2:00 pm

When I first came to Chicago, I used to watch the Siskel and Evert movie reviews. As I recall, they did three movies per half-hour segment, with each guy giving their assessment and then, often, arguing about the movies. I’m not sure that they really liked each other, but they surely respected each other, and both had a terrific knowledge of and acumen about movies. (The show ran from 1975-1999.)

I haven’t seen any better critics on television, and, sadly, they’re gone. Siskel died in 1999 of brain cancer at only 53, and Ebert (the one with glasses below, died at 70 of salivary gland cancer in 2013.

It was a don’t miss show if you loved movies; Gene Siskel was the head film critic for the Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times. So here we had the two biggest film titans in town battling it out about whether a movie got two thumbs up, two thumbs down, or one thumb up and one thumb down.  As I said, these shows got heated, and the passion of both men for films was overwhelming. (You can still read Ebert’s reviews online.)

Reader Rich sent me this short clip showing Siskel and Ebert giving advice to young critics about how to review movies. And this time they agree: give your own reactions, not what you think people want to hear, get deeply personal in relating your reaction, and, above all, avoid “political correctness”: take risks and don’t truckle to public opinion in the hope that readers will like you because they share your politics or ideology. This bit is particularly appropriate now, though few modern critics take their advice.

And what goes for movie criticism here goes for writing in general.

This 8.5-minute video clip should not be missed, and gives you an idea of what it was like to see the two discuss movies. I give it two thumbs up.

25 thoughts on “Siskel and Ebert on movie reviewing and “political correctness”

  1. I always watched Siskel and Ebert right up until the end. They argued a lot in their reviews but they were quite genial and funny whenever they guest-starred on the late night talk shows, which was quite often. Ebert’s site (https://www.rogerebert.com/) still reviews movies so someone is keeping up the tradition. To the best of my recollection, whenever I’ve read them via IMDB, they have been well written.

  2. Two thumbs up from Siskel meant I could watch the film without knowing the actors, director or plot. Two from Ebert translated into prior research and some contemplation.

  3. Jerry, the other way around: Siskel reviewed for the Trib, Ebert for the Sun-Times. I, too, would never miss their shows. I feel that they started out as bitter rivals but over the course of the run became good friends. Ebert went on to become a formidable Internet political presence after his recovery from initial surgery. He was the equal of Christopher Hitchens in his witty, biting commentary, IMO. Just like I wish Hitch would have survived to skewer Trump, I wish Roger would have also been around to give Trump the coup de grâce.

  4. Well, back then a person speaking or writing outside of the “fascist” boundaries as Ebert called 90s political correctness would not have been destroyed, and they would be empowered by it as Siskel said. Now, we have seen that speaking and writing outside the bounds of left wing ideology can indeed disempower and destroy or injure careers in the arts or the academy.

  5. I still read Ebert’s original reviews for some older films. I think movie reviewing has gone woke today. It’s possible to check that by looking at the discrepancy between audience reviews and expert reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. When the movie deals with sensitive topics, the expert reviewers generally rate it higher.

    1. Indeed. A few years ago, it finally dawned on me why I disagreed with so many reviews: to a large degree, the critics were rating the films by the portrayal of minorities, women, gays, etc instead of the screenplay, direction, cinematography, etc. If there was a white male hero/protagonist, that automatically knocked a star or two off.

      Mainstream film criticism is well and truly dead.

  6. Thank you! I miss them so much. It was “must watch TV,” for sure. I think I was more like Siskel, but it was the interplay between the two of them that made it all worth watching. I’m watching the clip you posted now, and it all comes rushing back. Yeh, I like Siskel a lot better–but I still love them together!

  7. I watched them too, and enjoyed their repartee. Anthony Lane at The New Yorker does great, irreverent reviews which I find enjoyable, but maybe I just agree with him.

  8. Let me be a dissenting voice. Siskel & Ebert’s two-thumbs-up tv show was pure schtick. I watched them regularly when their show first began airing nationally on PBS in the ’70s, but soon found them tiring and silly (not to mention the pain of having to look at Ebert’s ugly-ass sweaters).

    As to their writing, I never had much use for Siskel, but Ebert (although I often disagreed with him on movies) was a damn fine prose stylist. He was one of the so-called “Paulettes” — the movie critics who came of age under the enormous influence of The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael. The odd thing about Ebert was that as he grew older, and even as he lingered interminably in extremis with the cancer that eventually killed him, and as he expanded the subjects on which he wrote, his writing just kept getting better and better.

    Reading him, as opposed to watching him, was nearly always a pleasure.

    1. ” . . . (not to mention the pain of having to look at Ebert’s ugly-ass sweaters).”

      Well, apparently it was not too painful. Is that a “just so” statement? Pray tell, what was specifically “ugly-ass” about his sweaters? That he wore it over a shirt and/or with a jacket? That he wore a sweater at all? Disagreeable colors? Perhaps he should have worn Distressed Pumpkin.

      I’ve always wanted to find a book, a compendium/anthology critiquing critics. (Surely critics are not exempt from being critiqued.) E.g., Mel Brooks wrote that “Critics can’t even make music rubbing their legs together.”

    2. I have to agree, Ebert’s writing was quite good and much better than watching the show. Though, I did enjoy the show.

  9. I love going to rogerebert.com and reading Ebert’s old reviews. He was so insightful and wrote so very well. I have yet to see a slipshod, mail-it-in type review. Every one is a little gem. A brilliant guy. I don’t even know whether I tend to agree with his evaluation of the movies or not (I think I do)—I just enjoy his writing.

    By the way, I find it strange that Siskel would ask Burt Lancaster, an actor, for his advice on doing movie criticism. If I were an actor and a young critic were to ask me for advice I think my answer would be: rule #1 my movies and performances are always good.

  10. I’m a big fan of Ebert’s written film reviews (and I have one of his books on films). For some reason I’ve never acquainted myself with Siskel’s written reviews. I’ll have to fix that.

    Ebert had this uncanny way of putting his thumb on the relevance of a movie (or actor, or aspect of a film), in a way that seemed to make sense of my own thoughts and impressions. And he mostly avoided the lame, lazy reviewer mode of spending lots of the review just recounting the plot (of the film you are going to see!).

    After watching the clip above I went back to some of Ebert’s reviews and realized he practiced what he preached in that clip. He really did write about how a film affected HIM, and why, rather than as some detached objective assessment of a movie. (Though of course he would relate why he was impressed to the qualities of the movie itself – one that is there should others wish to appreciate it).

  11. Hi Jerry, longtime reader, first-time commenter. Ebert was a first-rate critic, and his interests went well beyond movies. He writes in his memoir that he had a “lifelong fascination with the perfection of the theory of evolution.” He also wrote a blistering take-down of Ben Stein’s Expelled. https://www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/win-ben-steins-mind

    Ebert used to come to my hometown of Boulder, CO for something called the Conference on World Affairs. He’d do something called Cinema Interruptus, where he’d show a movie and anyone in the audience could shout “Stop!” if they saw something that merited mentioning. I never got to see him, though I know several people who did. In 2010, after losing his ability to speak, Ebert invited Werner Herzog to join him in analyzing Aguirre, the Wrath of God. If you’re going to have someone speak for you, you could certainly do worse than Herzog. What an experience that must have been.

    1. I saw Ebert live in a small auditorium in Chicago interviewing Woody Allen live before Allen’s movie “Green Dragon” screened. The movie sucked, but their hour=long one-on-one was absolutely hilarious and mesmerizing!

      1. Missed that picture, good to know I can skip it. The Purple Rose of Cairo was one of my mother’s favorites (sort of an inversion of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., one of my own favorites.)

        You can see Ebert in conversation with Herzog here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQj3XuRkx-s. And picking the best films of the 90s with Martin Scorsese here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQj3XuRkx-s.

        In his memoir, Ebert remembers interviewing John Wayne, and says Wayne “would have had contempt for the Latter-Day weirdos of today’s Right.” Similarly, I’m sure Ebert would have had contempt for the censorious puritans of today’s Left. (I remember his outrage over the bowdlerized edition of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.)

        Best, and see you at the movies,
        Kevin

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