Roger Ebert was the most famous film critic in the world, but he was also a film critic, which is to say fallible. For all the classics he praised right out of the gate, or the ones he collected in his ever-swelling canon of "The Great Movies," he got some "wrong," or simply added to the dogpile on films, like "Ishtar" or "Heaven's Gate," that could have used a powerful friend. But it's easy — and smug — to admonish critics for missing the boat when one has 20/20 hindsight. (And easier still to neglect that having a major player say "Blue Velvet" was crap actually enriched the discussion of the film by forcing its fans to better articulate their praises.) But let's not dwell on his so-called failures, which ought not even to be called that. In honor of his recent passing, let's look at several films that everyone — or almost everyone — either hated or treated with apathy except that guy at the Chicago Sun-Times who was on that show with the skinny guy.
"Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1967): Roger Ebert worked at the same home publication for his entire career, starting in 1967 up until his death. One of the first things he did, as a fresh-faced 25 year old, was do what all critics ought to do: stand up for a movie that no one liked and whose studio was doing its best to suppress. John Huston’s film was an on-simmer survey of a Southern army base, populated by a closeted major (Marlon Brando) and his jilting wife (Elizabeth Taylor). Ebert’s review describes the hostile atmosphere at the screening he attended for a film to which he would award his highest grade and rank as his seventh favorite of the year. He praised Brando’s performance as his best in a period during which he flailed. “There is a scene in which he slowly breaks down and begins to cry, and his face screws up in misery. The audience laughed, perhaps because it's supposed to be ‘funny’ to see a man cry. The audience should have been taken outside and shot.” And he responded to how it was “shot in a process which drains almost all the color out of color film, leaving only reds and pinks and an occasional hint of blue or green,” saying the “result is a bleak landscape, within which lonely and miserable people try to account for themselves.”
"Vixen" (1968): Sex pictures, even the ones by military photographer-turned-softcore smut peddler Russ Meyer, have rarely been considered worthy of intellectual consideration. Ebert saw otherwise. Although only three stars, his review of Meyer’s box office hit “Vixen” — in which buxom Erica Gavin sleeps with everyone, including her brother, and eventually gets embroiled in a terrorist plot involving an Irish racist (!!) — ran in a major publication, which is awesome. “I see no reason why we can't be honest: 'Vixen' is the best film to date in that uniquely American genre, the skin-flick,” Ebert said. He also praised the “zestful direction and photography,” and Gavin, “whose acting could stand some improvement but whose screen presence is electrifying,” which is true. Then comes one of his many takedowns of bourgeois mores: “My personal prejudice is that its approach to sex is more healthy than the perverted Victorian values written into our city code.” The very next year he would write “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” Meyer’s first (of two) Hollywood pictures. He elaborated on his friendship with Meyer, for whom he wrote two more films (under pseudonyms), here.
"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974): Though it’s today (mostly) acknowledged as one of Sam Peckinpah’s masterpieces, his grimy, bad tequila-soaked, fly-ridden tale of a man (Warren Oates) who literally has to bring someone the head of a guy named Alfredo Garcia was once considered a legendary bomb. “Bad movie” hacks Michael and Harry Medved were just following the times when they placed it on their list of the fifty worst films of all time, along with “Last Year at Marienbad.” Ebert was among the prescient, not to mention perceptive, calling it “some kind of bizarre masterpiece,” and saying it’s “Sam Peckinpah making movies flat out, giving us a desperate character he clearly loves, and asking us to somehow see past the horror and the blood to the sad poem he's trying to write about the human condition.”
“Dawn of the Dead” (1979): Horror rarely gets a good rap, unless it’s high-toned and made by established artists (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist”). Ebert praised George A. Romero’s no-budget “Night of the Living Dead” back in 1967, and he threw his full four stars at its mall-set sequel. Quoth Ebert: “It is gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling. It is also (excuse me for a second while I find my other list) brilliantly crafted, funny, droll, and savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society.”
“Saint Jack” (1979): Peter Bogdanovich never remotely recovered the power he had in the early ‘70s, but there’s been a growing rediscovery/re-evaluation of his post-“Paper Moon” work (including the reviled retro-musical “At Long Last Love,” which is actually rather good). Ebert, like many, was not into many of those, but he was a staunch defender of the terrific “Saint Jack,” in which Ben Gazzara plays a Singapore pimp trying to eke by. At one point Gazzara pisses off local hoodlums, who tattoo his arms with vulgarities, which Ebert described as "a more diabolical and satisfactory form of gangland revenge than the concrete overcoat.”
“The Cotton Club” (1984): No one much liked Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Evans’ attempt to recapture their earlier "Godfather" glory, and with good reason: it’s a mess that you can’t call hacked-up because it doesn’t appear the great stuff was ever filmed. But every film needs a defender, even the so-called indefensible, and for this Ebert was the man: “It has the confidence and momentum of a movie where every shot was premeditated -- and even if we know that wasn't the case, and this was one of the most troubled productions in recent movie history, what difference does that make when the result is so entertaining?”
“Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985): It’s now considered earth-quaking when someone descends to enjoy trash; some critics make praising genre fare their entire raison d’etre. To Ebert, who wrote trash cinema himself, it was just part of the business of loving movies. He afforded masterpiece status to the third in George Miller’s “Mad Max” series, claiming that Thunderdome, the centerpiece arena, “is the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies.” He concludes that it’s “a movie that strains at the leash of the possible, a movie of great visionary wonders.”
“Eve’s Bayou” (1997): Actress Kasi Lemmons’ directorial debut, about a little girl and her philandering father (Samuel L. Jackson), wasn’t hated, or close to it: it was a well-reviewed film that made a couple bucks more than it might have. That was in part because Ebert gave it his full four stars and then, at year’s end, called it the very best film of the year. A small, lovely film that might have gone forgotten, that year and in the future, was this ingrained in history thanks to the world’s most famous critic.
"Dark City" (1998): The year after “Eve’s Bayou,” he chose another unlikely candidate as the year’s best: Alex Proyas’ noirish, twisty brain teaser about a man discovering that the dank urban hellhole he lives may not be real. No one else of note had spoken of it as highly as he did, and the film bombed, but he stuck by his guns, affording it a second, even third life. (A director's cut was released a number of years ago that fixes some of the studio interferences, including an opening narration bit that totally spoils the movie's gradual revelations.) Ebert even recorded a commentary track for the DVD and would tour around with it for special screenings.
“Femme Fatale” (2002): Brian De Palma’s snaky, bizarre, seductive riff on noir conventions (and movies in general) had a few defenders — David Edelstein among them — but at the time it was slammed by the majority of major publications and bombed. Said Ebert: “This is pure filmmaking, elegant and slippery. I haven't had as much fun second-guessing a movie since ‘Mulholland Drive.’” Yes, and good job finding the right contemporary movie to which to compare it.
“Synecdoche, New York” (2008): Roger Ebert wasn’t the only person to highly praise Charlie Kaufman’s highly divisive directorial debut, which was pure, undiluted Charlie Kaufman in ways few could have predicted. (Yours truly resides on the it's-a-masterpiece side of the fence.) But he was one of the few to almost put it on his All Time Top Ten. He wound up choosing another cosmic romp, the more optimistic Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” over this, shall we say, pessimistic look at the life span. But nearly getting on a major critic’s All Time Top Ten is nothing to sneeze at, and he was profoundly moved by its dark look at life spent/wasted on obsessional naval-gazing. “The film has the insight that we all deal with life in separate segments, defined by choice or compulsion, desire or fear, past or present,” he wrote last year. “It is no less than a film about life.