It was many years ago when Siskel and Ebert made movie criticism a popular sport. You could say, in a way, that they birthed the amateur critic, which is so much a part of the way the web digests movies these days. But back then it was “the bald guy and the fat guy” and everyone made fun of them, that is, until they figured out that Ebert and Siskel were in on the joke and were funny in their own right.
At the height of their popularity, the public hung on the turn of the thumb. They were alternately hated and relied upon. They both elevated and dumbed down the process, depending on who you ask.
Siskel fell ill and died too early. He was the more anal of the two but still managed to be charismatic. After he left, Ebert auditioned various critics throughout the country. The web was still teething at that point and hadn’t morphed into the monster it is today, but there were enough web “critics” to make it on Ebert’s show. He eventually settled on Richard Roeper.
Roeper got, and still gets, the reviled treatment. Nobody respects him and he is the butt of every joke. I wonder if Roger Ebert ever gave him a talking to and said listen, son, been there, done that. It takes time for the stink to wear out and the legend to shine, which is what has ultimately happened to Ebert up to and including his last moments on air before cancer rendered him unable to speak and therefore appear before a television audience.
Now, both Ebert and Roeper have announced their leaving for good to pursue other endeavors. In their wake are decidedly younger men, Ben Lyons (son of Jeffrey Lyons) who currently works for E! at the mic at awards shows and also writes film columns on the E! website. He is joined by Ben Mankiewicz (grandson of the Oscar-winning Herman Mankiewicz and great-nephew of Joseph Mankiewicz), a guest host on Turner Classic Movies with Robert Osborne.
Both of them have been quoted in the press saying to look for something bigger and better when the new show debuts. As for Ebert, he told the AP, “Gene and I felt the formula was simplicity itself: Two film critics, sitting across the aisle from each other in a movie balcony, debating the new films of the week.” Ebert added, “We developed an entirely new concept for TV.”
Ebert also said that if he goes the thumbs go. Lyons and Mankiewicz will have to find some other appendage to turn up or down. Or not. Somehow I don’t think thumbs will be as important as ratings on the new show. One suspects, though, that it might have been prudent to simply end At the Movies and give the two Bens a different venue for talking about films.Change is inevitable. The best things in life don’t last forever. I probably will not be someone who tunes into the new show only because I liked the old show so much. I liked the format. It was interesting. I don’t think Ebert is someone who can be so easily replaced and easily forgotten; no amount of razzle-dazzle and up-to-the-minute news can take the place of unbiased film critics who spent a lifetime gathering knowledge. Ebert knew stuff, and thus his audience learned a great deal from him. Somehow it’s hard to imagine the new hosts being able to offer that much.