I used to be married, so perhaps I'm the wrong person to be pointing this out, but some pairings really seem to be eternal. Imagine Decker without Black, Fitch without Abercrombie, Andy without Amos. Still, once in a while the Fates throw these equations out of whack: now we have Ebert without Siskel.

Gene Siskel was 53 years old when he died yesterday, and he spent thirty of those years writing about the movies for the Chicago Tribune. In the Sixties, film critics went mostly unnoticed; newspapers generally didn't have anything resembling national distribution, and magazines dealing with film were either deadly serious and mostly unread, or aimed at the mass market and utterly lacking in intellectual rigor. Reasoning that he could write better criticism if he understood his audience better, Siskel in 1970 came up with a contest: he would announce his picks for the Academy Awards, and he would challenge his readers to do the same. The Tribune promoted the contest, and eventually "Beat Siskel" became an annual event.

In 1975, Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW came up with an idea tentatively titled Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, to feature clips from coming attractions and critical commentary, and persuaded both Siskel and his crosstown rival, Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, to appear. Hardly friends and fiercely competitive, Siskel and Ebert didn't exactly hit it off, but public response was positive, and WTTW offered it to the entire PBS network in 1978 under the title Sneak Previews.

Twenty years later, it was still Siskel and Ebert. In 1982, they'd taken the show into commercial syndication under the name At the Movies; four years later, Buena Vista Television, an arm of the Disney organization, bought the show and renamed it for its stars. The film clips were still there, but what made the show work was its Dueling Critics format. While generally they agreed on really good movies — and on really bad ones — there was room for lots of disagreement in between, and Siskel and Ebert used as much room as they could.

After more than two decades of this, it's perhaps not surprising that the Siskel/Ebert relationship began to look more like sibling rivalry. The two have always professed great respect for each other's work, but their competitive nature always showed through. "Even when he's wrong," Siskel once said of Ebert, "it will be a well-written review." Still, they could have gone on indefinitely. "My fantasy is that in another 40 years Roger and I will be in wheelchairs and we'll have attendant nurses and we'll do the show."

Roger Ebert, at least, will still do the show, at least for now. "I think it was important to Gene," he says, "that this was the only serious film criticism on television. That made him proud." To that, I give an enthusiastic thumbs up.

The Vent

21 February 1999

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 Copyright © 1999 by Charles G. Hill