OPPOSABLE THUMBS: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever, by Matt Singer
They were known, a little unfairly, as “The Bald One” and “The Fat One.” Their most famous contribution to American culture was the reductive “thumbs up/thumbs down” verdict they gave to movies. But for more than two decades, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did something that seems remarkable in retrospect: These two ink-stained critics turned their debates over movies into must-see television.
Matt Singer is an unabashed fan, and in “Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever”he lovingly chronicles their serendipitous, long-running partnership. Both were established newspaper critics in Chicago — Ebert a Pulitzer Prize winner at The Sun-Times, Siskel his hard-charging rival at The Tribune — when programmers at the local PBS station came up with the idea of pairing them on TV to review the latest movies.
Their early efforts, on what was then called “Opening Soon … at a Theater Near You,” were rough. The energy level was low; tapings of the half-hour show could take an entire day; and, despite a fierce offscreen rivalry, “on camera Gene and Roger continued to appear lethargic, uncomfortable and sometimes downright bored,” Singer writes. But they eventually hit their stride, helped by the novel suggestion that, rather than hours of rehearsals and retakes, they aim for the spontaneity of their first take. From then on, the show thrived on the authenticity of two critics reacting to each other’s opinions in real time.
Their show, renamed “Sneak Previews,” went national in 1978, and was soon the highest-rated weekly half-hour on PBS. In 1982 they jumped to commercial syndication, first for Tribune Entertainment (with a new title, “At the Movies With Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert,”and introducing their trademarked “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” shorthand), and later for Disney. Each move had a multiplier effect: Whenever Siskel and Ebert jumped ship, the show they left behind was restaffed with a new pair of critics. By the end of the ’80s, dueling film critics had become something of a TV cottage industry.
But no one quite duplicated the combustible chemistry of the originals. Siskel and Ebert disagreed often — and often with an annoyance that wasn’t feigned. More notable, however, were the times they teamed up. While Singer, a film critic for ScreenCrush.com, doesn’t quite show how they “changed movies forever,” he credits the pair with championing small independent films like the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” and Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre”; railing against the brief vogue for colorizing black-and-white classics; and playing a key role in launching the film-preservation movement.
Their behind-the-scenes story is, to be honest, not all that compelling. Singer works hard to make the most of backstage anecdotes — Siskel sending Ebert fake fan letters, or the time Ebert “threw up all over the set” — that have the whiff of embellishment over years of retelling. And while Singer quotes liberally from their onscreen tiffs, I missed a better sense of their insights into movies. They were good sparring partners; were they also good critics?
Still, “Opposable Thumbs” is a welcome reminder of an era when film criticism actually mattered, from the theoretical debates between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris to pioneering print-to-TV critics like Judith Crist. But it was Siskel and Ebert who, in Singer’s words, “democratized criticism, turned it into mass entertainment.” Their partnership ended prematurely with Siskel’s death from a brain tumor in 1999. (Ebert carried on with new partners, before his death in 2013.) But already they were growing outdated; the film clips that staffers once had to painstakingly edit from giant film reels borrowed from the screening room (clips that were a big reason people tuned in) are now available to everyone instantly on the web.
Meanwhile, film criticism has devolved into a mere numbers game on websites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. Indeed, even as content has exploded in the streaming era, with a deluge of movies and TV series from around the globe, I can’t find a single regularly scheduled show devoted to the sort of smart-but-not-nerdy consumer guidance that Siskel and Ebert once provided. Thumbs down.
OPPOSABLE THUMBS: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever | By Matt Singer | 329 pp. | Putnam | $29