Cancer and surgery have silenced his voice, but thanks to the web and a new memoir, this critic is louder than ever. Thumbs up.
In your new autobiography, Life Itself, you write that upon meeting Dolly Parton, you and Gene Siskel each felt a sort of euphoric elation. What was it about Dolly, exactly?
It wasn’t physical or sexual. It was more like a psychic euphoria. I’ve been subjected to faith healers—not by my request—and never felt a thing. But being in the room with Dolly Parton generated such a definite sense of well-being, I was astonished. I wouldn’t have mentioned it, however, if Siskel hadn’t told me he experienced the same thing. It is a mystery. I don’t believe in that woo-woo stuff. I’m just reporting how I felt.
You write a lot about your love of voluptuous women. Is this the reason you and sexploitation director Russ Meyer, your Beyond the Valley of the Dolls co-writer, got along so well?
Without any question. With Russ it went beyond love to obsession. He would have considered most of the women in your magazine underdeveloped. I asked him once, “Where do you find those women?” He told me, “After they get beyond a certain cup size, they find me.” Russ was unapologetically, cheerfully, passionately a worshiper of breasts.
He seemed to have tons of euphemisms for them. To pull a few from your book: “bra busters,” “awesome configurations,” “the Guns of Navarone.” Which was your favorite?
As a kid you met Colonel Sanders before KFC was a thing. Did you sense that the good colonel was going places?
He was just this guy hanging around the Chuck Wagon Diner on Neil Street in Champaign, Illinois, asking people how they liked his recipe. He didn’t have his own restaurants yet. I thought he was kind of goofy. I remember, however, his chicken was damned delicious. Better than now. Although perhaps memory enhances the past.
What separates a film from a movie?
I use the terms interchangeably. But perhaps that a film is made with the hope that it will not become disposable.
What makes a movie good?
I love the definition of the great director Howard Hawks: “Three good scenes. No bad scenes.”
You say modern movie characters have grown stupid and cite White Men Can’t Jump as an exception.
Yes. Often their dialogue is limited or simplified as a concession to the foreign markets.
What do you think you and Siskel did to the world of criticism?
I think we put the notion into the minds of some kids that they wanted to grow up to be movie critics. If we did, that was our great success. I don’t mean they did do it for a living, but that at a young age they learned to be more demanding about the movies they saw.
With millions of movie blogs out there, do you think a new film criticism show could exist today?
Audiences are being hammered with celebrity gossip. I am so proud that my wife, Chaz, and I brought Ebert Presents: At the Movies back to public television in 2011.
How did the whole thumbs-up, thumbs-down thing start?
We started out giving yes votes and no votes. When we went into syndication, I suggested the thumbs. No one had any idea how quickly it would catch on.
You guys both guested on the Jon Lovitz cartoon The Critic. How did that come about?
We were asked to dub our own voices, and we agreed in a second. That was a great experience. We loved that show.
If you could speak again for one day, who would you interview?
For one day? Wow. Tilda Swinton.
You’ve been unflinchingly honest—on your blog, on Twitter, and in your book. And it seems like you aren’t afraid to name names when you talk about people in unflattering terms. And while it never comes off as mean, just honest, have you seen any backlash from any people you’ve called out publicly?
No. But I try to be fair.
Of course, there was the whole Ryan Dunn thing, where you tweeted, “Friends don’t let Jackasses drink and drive.” People were pissed, but maybe they didn’t realize you had a very personal struggle with alcoholism.
I was surprised his defenders didn’t seem to connect more with the fact that he drank, drove, and killed not only himself but also his passenger. I think some of them saw him as having gone out in a blaze of glory.
What are you most proud of?
I won the Illinois Associated Press sportswriting prize when I was still in high school and writing for my hometown paper. My dad was still alive for me to share that with. He died a few weeks later.
What would you like to be remembered for the most?
The movies will be around for a long time. No other single person has reviewed more of them for longer, and I hope that database of reviews will stay around.
What is your single greatest regret?
I think my early years were limited by my drinking. I wish I had found AA sooner.
You write that when interviewing people, if you allow them to keep on talking, they are likely to say anything. Well, here’s your chance. Say anything.