We were sitting around the hospitality suite at the Toronto International Film Festival (or whatever it was called then), getting to know one another and before long, my wife at the time, Lynda, and I were sharing popcorn with him at a screening of a comedy called Continental Divide.
The movie was a failed attempt to turn John Belushi into a romantic lead. It interested Roger because it was set in Chicago where he worked, and featured Belushi as a hard-living reporter, a breed with which the two of us were only too familiar.
Afterwards, we had dinner together. At a time when most critics, myself included, didn’t discuss what they thought about a movie until they published their review, Roger was more than willing to blab on about Continental Divide, a movie we both quite liked as it turned out.
That was the Roger I encountered over the years, a guy without artifice or pretense. I don’t know whether I liked him before we went to the movies together, but I sure like him after that.
He had started out in Chicago, a tough newspaper town if ever there was one, a town that does not suffer pomposity or preening critical pretensions. No matter how famous Roger became–and he became, as has been tirelessly pointed out in his various obituaries, the world’s most famous critic–he never left Chicago, or the newspaper business, and he never lost the sense that the guys in the newsroom would call him out if he got too carried away with himself.
He was close friends over the years with close friends of mine, and I suppose I knew him better through Dusty Cohl, one of the founders of the Toronto Film Festival, and Hans Gerhardt, the legendary hotelier who in those days was running celebrity central at the Sutton Place Hotel.
They adored him, Dusty in particular. And Roger loved Dusty right back. When Dusty started up something called the Floating Film Festival (on a boat, ergo the floating) Roger was there. When Dusty died, and Roger, ill with cancer, could not be at his memorial, he sent his delightful wife, Chaz, to steal the show.
It was Dusty who persuaded Roger to attend Toronto’s fledgling film festival, and it was Roger, along with Hollywood columnist George Christy, who helped put it on the international map. Roger–and George–remained unfailingly loyal to the festival over the years.
The last time I saw Roger, on his final visit to the festival a couple of years ago, we shook hands at the lunch George Christy throws each year at the Four Seasons. Yet again I found myself shaken by the terrible toll his cancer had taken. Most of his jaw was gone, along with the extra pounds that for so many years had differentiated him from his taller, thinner television partner Gene Siskel, and made the two of them such a TV-ready odd couple.
But nothing, not even cancer, could stop him. He published books and a memoir, and continued to crank out movie reviews, blog posts, and even tweets at a furious pace. Most critics begin to despair of the art they are writing about. The great English critic, Kenneth Tynan, eventually felt he had said everything he had to say about the theater and felt lost and at a dead-end.
Pauline Kael, if one is to believe her biographer, Brian Kellow, became disenchanted with the quality of movies in the 1980s and slipped off into bitter retirement. But Roger never stopped loving the movies, and, if anything, became more enthusiastic and less critical.
Right up to the end, he was very much in the main stream. He generally liked what everyone liked, which probably accounted for much of his astonishing popularity. On television he could sound authoritative but he spoke in the plain, unadorned voice of the Everyman at the movies.
One of the other reasons for his immense success, of course, was his partnership with the late Gene Siskel. They were oil and water together and that always lent a tension to their television appearances. After Gene’s death from a brain tumor at the age of fifty-three, Roger mellowed and claimed the two had grown to like, if not love, one another. But I always wondered.
Off camera and away from a crowd, Gene could be quite likable. But in front of an audience, he suffered the very pomposity Roger spent a lifetime avoiding. Years ago TIFF decided to honor director Martin Scorsese. Siskel and Ebert were dispatched to do an onstage interview with him and with two of his most famous stars, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro.
The five of them were sitting on stage when the discussion turned to Mean Streets, one of Scorsese’s earliest successes, and the movie which helped establish both Keitel and De Niro. Siskel abruptly turned to Keitel and said something like, “That scene where you and Bob are walking through the door, what were you thinking when you did that?”
Keitel looked at Siskel as though he was crazy. “What the f– do you think I was thinking? I wasn’t thinking anything. I was walking through the f– door.”
That produced, to say the least, an uneasy silence. Roger had gone white with anger. I thought for a moment he was going to kill Gene right there on stage, so naked was his fury. Gene appeared oblivious.
Hearing about Roger’s death yesterday at the age of seventy, I thought of the time at the Cannes Film Festival when we decided to do a joint interview with the actress Ann-Margret. Casually dressed and without much makeup, she met us in her hotel suite overlooking the Mediterranean.
We spent the next hour or so asking the usual movie star questions and getting the usual movie star answers. After the interview, she invited us to have lunch with her in the suite, then excused herself to go and change for the television interviews she was to do that afternoon.
After a few minutes she returned. Now her hair fell softly to her shoulders, framing a perfectly made up face. She had changed from her casual clothes into a yellow top and a short skirt, fitted exactly to the contours of a body one could only describe as breath-taking. Both Roger and were suitably awe-struck.
In that moment, we were no longer critics lost in the dark at the movies, just a couple of fellas at the Cannes Film Festival delighting in the glow of a beautiful woman.