One Final Thumbs-Up
He was the balding journalist of whom Roger Ebert once jokingly noted, "You know, his scalp is so prominent, it's worthy of its own zip code." But all joking aside, film critic Gene Siskel was indeed a worthy man in many respects. The "Jake" to Ebert's "Fat Man," Siskel was a prominent entertainment journalist at The Chicago Tribune for 30 years as well as co-host of the syndicated movie review program Siskel & Ebert. Last Saturday, he died at age 53 of ongoing complications from surgery performed on his brain ten months ago.
At a time during which many Americans seem loathe to accept the advice of any arts critic, Siskel was truly a star in his own right. I once heard a friend say something along the lines of, "Siskel and Ebert? Pffhh. I'd probably be more likely to go to a movie that they gave two thumbs down." And strangely enough, about a week or so later, I found myself looking at The New York Times' Arts section wherein some horrible B-movie (which I think was supposed to revive the career of one of those long-forgotten extras from Saved by the Bell) took out a full-page ad, sporting the line, "Come see it! Siskel and Ebert gave us two thumbs down!"
Mockery? Well, obviously. But Gene Siskel never let some petty stunt like this affect him. Always the consummate professional, Siskel continued to appear week after week on his show, continued to remain true to his craft. Gene Siskel was a critic--sometimes brutally honest, sometimes overflowing with praise.
Last year, 150 Harvard students had the good fortune of seeing Siskel and Ebert in person at an event sponsored by the Harvard Law School Forum. The journalists were on hand to discuss life beyond the courtroom and the applicability of a law degree in the places where you'd least expect to find it useful. For Siskel, it was topic more personal than many in the audience would have anticipated. "I was once in your shoes," he began in his slightly quivering voice, "all excited about my first day of law school."
"I lasted only a day."
Siskel went on to tell these eager listeners about how his life was headed along the treacherous path of "The Tube"--"You know, Yale undergrad, Harvard Law, big job in the city and retirement in Westchester by age 40," as he put it. Yet Siskel came to realize the dangers associated with this lifestyle, in particular, the rushing through life-altering events without taking the time to appreciate them. Life as a journalist, and not as a lawyer, was much more to his suiting. The Chicago Tribune quoted him in 1995 as saying, "I still have my enthusiasm for the job, and you can't fake enthusiasm."
And Gene Siskel was indeed a journalist, not just a critic as many would believe. Although he was probably best-known for his movie reviews on Siskel & Ebert, he was also a contributor to CBS This Morning, a nationally-televised show on which he delivered outstanding interviews with some of Hollywood's top directors. These were meaty interviews about the state of the motion picture industry, art in the 1990s and different players' roles within--none of this "Who designed your dress? Oscar de la Renta?" garbage that seems to pass for arts reporting on several less-reputable "entertainment news" shows.
All this from the man who wasn't too scared to admit to 150 Harvard students that one of his favorite movies of all-time was Saturday Night Fever. Just because it was fun.
Gene Siskel was a man who dared to live outside "The Tube," to find what it was that he wanted to do and then go ahead and do it. Although Roger Ebert anticipates that their show will continue on the air in some form or another, it is hard to imagine that anyone will ever truly take Siskel's place.
Here's a final thumbs-up for you, sir, and all you accomplished.