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Roger Ebert In Review: A 'Fresh Air' Survey

Fresh Air remembers the film critic and bon vivant Roger Ebert, who died Thursday, with a roundup of interviews from our archive -- one with Ebert alone, one with him and his late partner Gene Siskel, and two in which Ebert interviews iconic directors. Plus, critic-at-large John Powers discusses Ebert's 2011 memoir Life Itself.




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April 5, 2013

Guests: Roger Ebert - Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel - Roger Ebert & Martin Scorsese - Roger Ebert & Francis Ford Coppola

TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we remember film critic Roger Ebert.


ROGER EBERT: Across the aisle from me, Gene Siskel, film critic of the Chicago Tribune.

GENE SISKEL: And this is Roger Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times.

GROSS: That's how Roger Ebert and his rival Chicago film critic the late Gene Siskel used to introduce each other on their PBS program "Sneak Previews," the show that made them famous in the late '70s. Ebert died yesterday at the age of 70, just a few days after blogging that a painful fracture that had made it difficult to walk was diagnosed as cancer.

His life and his body had already been dramatically altered by cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands and chin, which was first diagnosed in 2002. It left him unable to speak or eat. But he kept writing about films on his blog and social media, reaching a big and appreciative audience.

We're going to listen back to an interview with Ebert, as well as an interview with Ebert and Siskel. And we'll hear excerpts of onstage interviews Ebert conducted with Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola about two of Ebert's favorite films, "Raging Bull" and "Apocalypse Now." Our critic-at-large John Powers says that Ebert will be remembered for his enthusiasm, his openness, his generosity to filmmakers and to his fellow critics, and for his canny knack of taking his work into new media.

We're going to start with a piece John recorded about Ebert in September 2011, after the publication of Ebert's memoir "Life Itself."

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: You can divide famous people into two broad categories: those who find fame a burden and those who take it like a tonic. Roger Ebert is one of the latter. That rarest of creatures, a film critic who everyone knows, he really enjoys being Roger Ebert.

This pleasure comes through in his new memoir, "Life Itself." Perhaps goaded into existence by the cancer that has assailed him in recent years, it tells the life story of the man with the most famous thumb in America, pausing along the way to offer the author's views on everything from the glories of black-and-white cinematography to the existence of God to the comedy of being fat.

The book is chatty, upbeat and structurally loose - which is to say that it sounds exactly like Roger Ebert. He was born 69 years ago in Urbana, Illinois, and enjoyed a classic middle-American childhood, idyllic but tinged with darkness.

He had an electrician father, Walter, whom he obviously adored; and a mother, Annabel, who treated him kindly but also scared him with her anger, especially once she became an alcoholic, a drinking problem that Ebert himself would share and eventually conquer.

A lifelong liberal, Ebert had dreamed of being a feisty newspaper columnist like Mike Royko. But his life took a very different turn in 1967 when, much to his surprise, he was named film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times. He was all of 25 years old, and he seized the job like a brass ring.

His career took off quickly - he'd won the Pulitzer Prize by age 33 - and he began accumulating a vast storehouse of anecdotes. He gives career advice to the young Oprah Winfrey, hangs out with the old Robert Mitchum, and scripts the movie "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" for skinflick meister Russ Meyer, whose own account of their collaboration makes you suspect that Ebert is giving us the PG version.

Still, he would have remained a minor local celebrity had it not been for the 1975 creation of the movie review show "Sneak Previews," with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, a competitive man of burning ambition, whom Ebert portrays with surprising generosity.

The show wasn't Ebert's idea, but it changed him and our culture, not always for the best. The trademark feature of "Sneak Previews" was that moment when Ebert and Siskel gave movies thumbs up or thumbs down, a hugely influential shtick that reduced film criticism to a simple-minded consumer guide in which ideas barely matter.

Yet while I know scads of critics who dislike that show, I'm not sure I know any who dislike or blame Ebert. They think that's just Roger. And Roger has never been one of those critics you read for his analysis. He's a critic you read for his openness and enthusiasm. Because of that enthusiasm, you might almost say that he's the original fanboy: breezy, personal, ready to share.

This may help explain why, after cancer forced him from his TV show, he reinvented himself as a hugely successful blogger, weighing in on everything from movies to politics to what he sees as the ruination of his newspaper by idiots. It's probably the best writing he's ever done.

And it's all the more impressive because life dealt him a hard blow with a disease that keeps him from eating, drinking or talking, three things he obviously loved. But rather than sinking into a funk or hiding away, he's gone on with his life, and one of the many admirable features of his new book is its sunniness. It's wholly free from the complaining and self-pity so popular in memoirs these days.

That's just what you'd hope for from a guy who was raised, and thrived, in the very heart of the American century. Ebert is anything but provincial. "Life Itself" begins with a reference to Ingmar Bergman's film "Persona," and ends by quoting Tintin's dog, Milou.

But reading this book, I was struck by how deeply he's inscribed with our national character; the decency and good humor and happy acceptance of other cultures, the recognition that the world has murky depths he'd just as soon not dwell on, above all, the eagerness to engage with life. You see, unlike a lot of film critics, Roger Ebert knows that there's more to living than just sitting in the dark.

GROSS: That was our critic-at-large John Powers, recorded in 2011, after the publication of Roger Ebert's memoir "Life Itself." I had the pleasure of interviewing Ebert several times. Here's an excerpt of the interview we recorded in 1984, when he and Gene Siskel were co-hosting their syndicated movie review program "At the Movies."

Viewers may have thought of Ebert and Siskel as a team because they appeared together on their weekly show, but they were also rival film critics for rival Chicago newspapers. Ebert told me they regarded each other more as competitors than partners.

EBERT: He works for the Tribune. I work for the Sun Times. One day a week, we do the show. The other six days of the week, we are, indeed, competitors. So Siskel and I have been both covering the movies in Chicago for 16 years together, and I started two years before him. So it goes back a long way. In fact, when I was asked originally if I would like to do a show with Gene Siskel, my answer was: Why Gene Siskel?


GROSS: Well, did you ever ask yourself what did you do to deserve such as a fate as having to work so closely with your biggest rival?

EBERT: There could be worse fates. Gene Siskel is intelligent. He's well-informed. He's a good film critic, and I respect him. And when we are doing our discussions on the air, we do them ad-lib, unrehearsed, spontaneous and first draft, for the most part, unless some terrible mistake takes place.

And I'm glad to be able to have him sitting across the aisle from me, because I get a lot of feedback, and we can talk well together. I think I would feel bad if I had to do the show with somebody who didn't seem to be listening to what I said and wasn't responding to me, but was just simply waiting for me to shut up so that he could start.

GROSS: Before you became a professional, before you started writing for newspapers or anything, did you have a desire to make movies or to write about them as a critic?

EBERT: No. Like a lot of people who started to read in the late '50s, I wanted to be a novelist. I mean, the heroes when I was going to school may have been film directors like Antonioni and Fellini, but they were also novelists like Philip Roth. Katherine Anne Porter just had a new book out at that time.

I started reading in high school, and, I mean, I read - I started reading, I think, at the age of six, you know. But in high school, I came across the works of Thomas Wolfe at just the right age. I think I was 13-and-a-half. And this image of this tortured, romantic figure writing novels while standing up and writing on the top of the refrigerator and walking through the dawn saying I wrote 10,000 words tonight, that was me. You know, I went for that.

And Kerouac, "On the Road," books like that. And when I was 15-and-a-half, I started writing sports for the News Gazette in Champaign-Urbana. A sports columnist in Philadelphia, a man named Bill Lyon, also worked on the News Gazette at the same time. I covered Urbana. He covered Champaign. He was into Thomas Wolfe, too.

And we would work all night on our stories. We're covering some high school football game, but the lead would have to be perfect. Every word would have to be filled with a passion. You know, Thomas Wolfe covers the Urbana Tigers and the Champaign Maroons. And during the game every year when Champaign played Urbana, you know, it was like Dante was covering it, especially if you lost.

GROSS: Speaking with film critic Roger Ebert. Did your parents try to influence your movie-going habits?

EBERT: I think I had a real good relationship with my parents about the movies. I went to a lot of movies. And then there comes the time in everybody's life when you just go to the movies that you feel like going to. That first time your parents drop you off at the multiplex so you can see "Oh Heavenly Dog" starring Benji, and you sneak in to see "Saturday Night Fever" instead, that's one of the initiation processes into adulthood.


GROSS: Were there movies that you started to define yourself by, you know, like this movie really says something about who I am?

EBERT: That happened to me as I was in the last years of high school and the first years of college. There were art theaters in Champaign-Urbana, and also the university had a film society. And I started going to the angry young men films like "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" in which, frankly, you know, as a high school kid in Urbana, I had very little in common with this borstal boy played by Tom Courtenay, but to me, you know, that movie was my story. It's the "Bonnie and Clyde" line, you know, where Clyde says: You know what you did? You told my story.

I went to see "La Dolce Vita" by Fellini, and that movie has been a touchstone for me, because when I saw it in 1960, there was this 30-year-old journalist in Rome leading this unbelievably glamorous life with all these celebrities and staying up all night and going to orgies and having all of his philosophical friends around him and his wives and his mistresses and miracles and stories to cover.

When I saw it again - and I've seen it every 10 years - in 1970, it was somebody about my age, only he was leading a more interesting life than I was, I thought. And when I saw it again in 1980, it was somebody 10 years younger than I was, and he had a lot of problems that I had outgrown.

So Marcello, the character in the movie, stays the same, and I can kind of measure, you know, my thoughts about the character as time goes by.

GROSS: You've interviewed a lot of stars in the years that you've been writing about movies. Do they ever make ridiculous demands of you about what they will or won't do, what they won't talk about? And if that happens, how do you handle it?

EBERT: In general, no, they don't. In the book, there's an interview with Jerry Lewis at the Cannes Film Festival. He got out a tape recorder. He tape-recorded it, apparently out of paranoia. What I am astounded by is the number of occasions where totally unexpected and startling things happen that the star does nothing at all to conceal.

Another interview in this book is with Tony Curtis, also at the Cannes Film Festival. I went to interview him, and during the course of the interview, he looked out the window of his hotel room, saw a woman on the sidewalk that he found attractive and started screaming at her to come up to his room. He was shouting his name and his room number in full view and hearing of about 500 people on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel. He was really out of control that day. And when I left, I had a very strange encounter to record.

Movie stars have been interviewed so often, that sometimes you find some very revealing things happening because the interviewer is almost not visible to them.

GROSS: What do you mean?

EBERT: That there's always been an interviewer there. I mean, Robert Mitchum has been a movie actor for 40 years. If I'm sitting in the back seat of his car, is he going to be thinking oh, my God, the press is here? No, the press has always been there. You know, 20 years ago it was Rex Reed. Forty years ago, it was Louella Parsons. You know, in a way, the press has always been in Robert Mitchum's back seat, and so if you can adopt the fly-on-the-wall approach of just kind of quietly sitting there and observing everything that's going on, you are going to see somebody who is not especially monitoring his behavior.

GROSS: Roger Ebert, recorded in 1984. Coming up, we continue our remembrance of Ebert with a 1996 interview with Ebert and Gene Siskel. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering film critic Roger Ebert, who died yesterday at the age of 70. Ebert first became famous for hosting a weekly TV series in which he and rival film critic Gene Siskel reviewed new films. They remained TV partners until Siskel's death in 1999 of brain cancer.

I spoke with Ebert and Siskel in 1996, onstage in their hometown of Chicago, at a benefit for public radio station WBEZ in Chicago. Our interview included clips from their favorite films. I asked Ebert to introduce the film he chose.

EBERT: I had originally picked a different scene. I picked the scene with Orson Welles being discovered by the cat in the doorway in "The Third Man." And then my esteemed colleague here pointed out that that scene doesn't have any dialogue in it, and so it probably wouldn't play very well on the radio.


EBERT: We could have a kind of a United Nations translation: OK, now Orson Welles is smiling at Joseph Cotten, you know. So I granted Gene his point. It was a pretty good point.


EBERT: And I thought a little harder, and I thought of my favorite passage of dialogue in the movies, and it's from "Citizen Kane," but I don't want to tell you what it is. It's from "Citizen Kane." It's Mr. Bernstein, who is a person who has been - who began with Charles Foster Kane. He was there before, as he says earlier in this same scene: I was there before the beginning, and now I'm here after the end. And this is the speech that I like so much.

GROSS: OK, let's watch it.


EVERETT SLOANE: (as Mr. Bernstein) Who's a busy man? Me? I'm chairman of the board. I've got nothing but time. What do you want to know?

WILLIAM ALLAND: (as Jerry Thompson) Well, Mr. Bernstein, we thought maybe if we could find out what he meant by that last words, as he was dying.

SLOANE: (as Bernstein) That Rosebud, huh? Maybe some girl? There were a lot of them back in the early days.

ALLAND: (as Thompson) It's hardly likely, Mr. Bernstein, that Mr. Kane could have met some girl casually, and then 50 years later on this death bed, remember.

SLOANE: (as Bernstein) Well, you're pretty young, Mr. Thompson. A fellow would remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in. And on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress, she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all. But I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

EBERT: Yeah.


GROSS: Now tell us more about what thrills you about the dialogue in that.

EBERT: Well, I saw the movie for the first time in 1958, and there hasn't been a month go by since then...


EBERT: ...that I haven't thought about that dialogue, because in one little speech in a popular Hollywood film written by Herman Mankiewicz, you have the mystery of memory and of longing and of the fact that we are all, to some degree, alone and trying to reach out to somebody else.

And then you have time. You're a young man, Mr. Thompson, he says. And the more I think about that, if you - the more you think about that speech, the more it's about the human condition. It's about the whole thing.

GROSS: I'd like to go through some firsts, like do a little, like, film biography of each of you. So let's move through these quickly. The first film you actually remember seeing in a movie theater.

SISKEL: Well, it would probably a Disney picture. And the one that stands out for me for the emotional impact was "Dumbo," specifically the sequence where Mrs. Jumbo is chained up. It's a beautiful sequence. The laughter is misplaced.


SISKEL: It's a laughter on the title, but it's one of the most beautiful, powerful sequences in the movies, and that is of course when Mrs. Jumbo is - we're talking about separation between child and mother.

And the - she sings. She later will sing with her trunk woven in through the bars, one of the most beautiful lullabies, "Baby Mine." And clearly, every child fears - and the Disney animated features always play on it - parental loss. And that was a very powerful thing for me growing up.

GROSS: Roger, your first film you remember seeing in a movie theater.

EBERT: My father took me to see the Marx Brothers in "A Day at the Races." He loved the Marx Brothers. He had seen the Marx Brothers on stage in Champaign-Urbana when he was a young man in vaudeville.

GROSS: Was it funny to you?

EBERT: No, to me, the scene that I liked the very best - I was really scared when Groucho got on the horse. I was afraid he would fall off and get hurt. But the scene I remember the best is Harpo looking at me while he played the harp. He was looking straight out of the screen. He nodded at the camera. And I thought he saw me. And he was saying, look, I'm playing the harp. And I didn't know what a harp was. I'd never seen one before. And I was entranced.

GROSS: The movie that most scared you as a child, that you...

SISKEL: I think I answered that question. Particularly, I will say when Timothy J. - when Dumbo's up there, and, you know, can he fly or not? Now, here, you're talking about a childhood fantasy. I mean, obviously it's a fantasy for everyone, flying, but unassisted - but he could die. He could be - certainly, he could be humiliated. And, again, this is a thing that a child would relate to.

EBERT: Gene was thinking: Some day, I want to work with a guy like Dumbo.


GROSS: Roger, the...


SISKEL: Too obvious.


GROSS: The film that first really scared you.

SISKEL: Charitable mood. Twentieth anniversary, what the hell. You know, let it go.

EBERT: When I was 10, I saw "The Thing," the Howard Hawks picture. It scared me cold. I was terrified during the movie and for days afterwards. But...

GROSS: Because of the way they burn The Thing and set it on fire?

EBERT: Oh, the whole - the way he melted, and you could see that he was still alive.

GROSS: What do you do with the vegetable? You cook it?

EBERT: The moment when they form hands in a circle in the ice, and then you get the overhead shot, and you see that there's a ship underneath the ice. Everything in that movie terrified me. You know, among modern pictures, the first "Halloween" was a very scary picture.


EBERT: Gene saw it at the Village Theater when he was living two blocks away, and he took a cab home.


SISKEL: I took a cab - absolutely true, absolutely true. (unintelligible), and I was living at 1400 North State, and I - it's a little more than two blocks, but about four. And I will tell you I took a taxi home. And when I got in - and we've all done this after scary movies, I hope - I went to the shower and pulled the curtain back.


SISKEL: Absolutely true.

EBERT: And believe me, there was nobody in the shower.

SISKEL: I was about 30 at the time. That sounds normal, doesn't it?

EBERT: Knowing the kind of housekeeper you were, it was probably a frightening sight in that shower, anyway.

SISKEL: That was scary. That was scary.

GROSS: The first movie you reviewed.

EBERT: "The Last Wave." It was a French film.

GROSS: I thought it was an Australian film. Oh, this is a different one.

EBERT: No, no, that's a different "Last Wave."


And I remember "The Last Wave." That the Aborigines. No, this was 1967, and my review was: Ah, yes, here it is, the French New Wave rolling ashore once again. You see, my first review, and I was already blase.


SISKEL: My first review was of Walt Disney's "Rascal"...

GROSS: Boy, a real Disney thing here.

SISKEL: ...starring Billy Mumy. He was the child actor in "Lost in Space." It was about a pet raccoon. And I really had to deal with the issue very quickly of hating that picture and being bold enough to say, off the gun, you know, you're sort of knocking mom and apple pie. And I went right at it.

GROSS: Was that hard the first time you gave a negative review...

SISKEL: That was in late August - I think it was August 29th, 1969.

GROSS: Now, your first review was a negative review. Roger, was it hard the first time you wrote a negative review?


GROSS: You didn't think: I'm hurting people's career, people worked really hard on this movie, they're probably decent human beings? This represents...

SISKEL: I had that test come up.

GROSS: ...this is a heartfelt effort, even though the product isn't very good?

EBERT: You have to realize you're not writing for the filmmakers. You're writing for the potential film audience. And I would much rather hurt somebody's feelings who made the picture than send somebody to see a movie and spend two hours of their life seeing a movie that I don't think is worth seeing.

GROSS: Roger Ebert with Gene Siskel in 1996. Ebert died yesterday. Our remembrance continues in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross. This is FRESH AIR, and this is NPR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're remembering film critic Roger Ebert. He died yesterday at the age of 70, just a few days after blogging that a painful fracture that had made it difficult to walk was diagnosed as cancer.

We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview Ebert conducted with one of his favorite film directors, Francis Ford Coppola, about one of his famous favorite films, "Apocalypse Now." The interview was recorded at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, after the screening of the re-edited and restored version of this classic film, which is set during the Vietnam War.

Let's start with a clip. Marlon Brando, who plays the renegade Colonel Kurtz, is recalling an atrocity at a village. After American soldiers inoculated the village children with a polio vaccine, the Viet Cong arrived and hacked off the children's arms.


MARLON BRANDO: (as Colonel Kurtz) There they were in a pile - a pile of little arms. And I remember, I, I, I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized, like I was shot, like I was shot with a diamond - a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God, the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men, trained cadres, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love, but they had the strength, the strength, to do that.


EBERT: At the time we saw it here, and I saw it in the old Palais, and I think it was my greatest film-going experience at Cannes because I had spine-tingling, I mean literally, I mean not figuratively but real tingles. At the time we were so filled with stories about the production. All the lore about Brando, for example. Now, seeing it again, after 22 years, all that's forgotten, it's all water under the bridge. Brando's performance seems to so strong to me and so - just in the right note and just handled right by you. And all the gossip about, you know, how much he weighed or, you know, every time Brando does anything there are a million stories from the set, had all just faded away leaving this pure and great performance. How did you feel seeing it again? Because you had to work with Brando and deal with them and so forth.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Well, you know, he's an extraordinary man. And beyond as - the roles of films that we know, just what he talks about and the way his mind thinks, it's true. I could tell you so many stories. I don't want to overstay my welcome, but the truth of the matter is Marlon is like a kid and he's very lazy and he doesn't like to work, and he also gets embarrassed and he gets stage fright. So when he arrived, you know, he was very big and I immediate - you know, in film you always have problems and part of your job as a director is to see how you can make the problem be an advantage. So I immediately suggested, well, Marlon, why don't you play it as this is big fat guy and have one arm around a beautiful girl and another with a mango that you're eating and show him as a man who has surrendered to the jungle and to the lusts of life. But Marlon is very shy about his weight. He says, no, no, no, I can't do that. I don't want to be like fat and stuff. I said OK.

Well, I - I couldn't have him be as it was written, a kind of a Green Beret colonel in uniform because, you know, where would he have gotten the uniform that could fit him, you know? So the idea I had - in movies, you know, very often you're looking at the actor from the waist up. And in a movie if you're broad, if you have big shoulders, you know, even like Roger, if you're broad, that in your mind, you assume him to be a big man, a giant - not necessarily heavy. So I thought if I shot him from - in that attitude and then when I showed him full, had a double who was like six foot six, it would make Kurtz be like a giant man rather than like me, you know? So that was the philosophy I took as a solution. The second issue was that Marlon, I wanted it to be like the character Kurtz in the book, and Marlon immediately said that would never work.

You know, so finally I started getting, you know, well, why wouldn't it work and, you know, blah, blah, blah. One day, the fifth day, I come in and I'm astonished. There he is and he's cut off all his hair, which is the image of Kurtz from the book. And I said Marlon, what happened? I said you're going to do it like Kurtz. He says, yeah, I think doing it like Kurtz is the best way. I said but you told me that wouldn't work. You said you read the book and it would never work. He says, well, I didn't read the book. I said but you told me you did. He said, well, I lied.

So, so that's like what it is to work with Marlon. But - but his instincts are so great that - and many of our talks led to opinions and ideas and he evolved what he needed in order to do that performance, and he should be commended...

EBERT: It's just right because when you get to this legendary character in "The Heart of Darkness," you really don't want to just have him standing there like a person who exists as in the same dimension as the other people in the film. He has to emerge out of some other kind of idea, I think.

COPPOLA: Well, he also knew - Marlon even said to me - that I, he says you've painted yourself into a corner, haven't you? And what he meant was that as I made the film going up the river, I was making it more surreal, you know, with the colored smoke and the style it had. And by making it more surreal, a normal "Guns of Navarone" ending wouldn't have worked anymore, so I had painted myself into a corner and I didn't know how to get out. And he knew that I had done that and I think in a, you know, he likes to kid around and stuff or he's a big practical joker, but I think that early process of trying to find the ending was his working really at it.

GROSS: Roger Ebert interviewing Francis Ford Coppola at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001. We'll hear an excerpt of Ebert interviewing Martin Scorsese after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering film critic Roger Ebert, who died yesterday. One of Ebert's top 10 films was "Raging Bull," directed by Martin Scorsese. In 1997, Ebert interviewed Scorsese about that film at the Wexner Center for the Arts on the campus of Ohio State University.


EBERT: "Raging Bull" came out in '80 and it is a great film. It is a film that will live as long as films are seen.

And I think that...

MARTIN SCORSESE: Thank you. Thank you.

EBERT: What I feel so strongly in talking to people about movies, frequently people will - they know I'm a movie critic - they will discuss the subject matter as if that is what the film is about. Oh, it's a film about boxing.

SCORSESE: Yeah, I know. Right.

EBERT: Or, oh, it's a film about gangsters.

SCORSESE: Right. Right.

EBERT: Or whatever. You know, like when they hear what "Breaking the Waves" is about. Oh, I don't know if I want to see it. A film is not about its subject. It's about how its about its subject.

SCORSESE: Right. In fact, when...

EBERT: A subject is neutral. People don't understand that. When people say, whenever anybody makes a statement, I don't like to go to movies about and then fill in the blank...

SCORSESE: Yeah. Yeah.

EBERT: response is, anyone who makes that statement is an idiot.

SCORSESE: No, its true.

It's true. It's true.

EBERT: I don't want to go to bad films about cowboys.


EBERT: I don't want to go to bad films about boxers.


EBERT: I would like to see a good film about a boxer might be a more intelligent statement.

SCORSESE: Yeah. I mean when Bob gave me the book originally, it's back in 1974, I never had saw - I never saw a fight scene, I never saw a fight. My father was a big fight fan. But I never, I didn't know anything about boxing and I wasn't interested in films about boxing, you know. But it took those years to - for me to go my own way, to come back to understanding really what it was about.

EBERT: It wasn't - it was about a boxer but it wasn't about boxing.


EBERT: It was about the boxer.

SCORSESE: It was about a man. Yeah.

EBERT: Could you set this up just a little bit by talking about two things? Number one, what people don't always - they observe viscerally but not necessarily intellectually - how much technique went into the boxing sequences, in terms of slow motion and lenses and movement of camera.

SCORSESE: Well, what happened with the boxing sequences, once I saw De Niro perform the nine fights - they had - Jake LaMotta and Jimmy Nickerson worked out blocking for nine fight scenes. And he showed them to me in Gleason's Gym on 14th Street, and I sat there, I was stunned. In fact, he came over to me. He says, are you watching? Because I'm killing myself. I said, yeah, I am.

And I realized, I said, oh boy, I said - because he didn't know. He thought it - he thought I was like, you know, hanging around not watching. I'm watching, I'm watching, I realized you can't shoot this. You can't shoot this from my angle. I said we have to be in there with him and its got to be "The Wild Bunch." It's got to be - every punch has to be worked out in such a way, well, let's say not every punch, but you have to do it like music. You have to do it like I did some of the musical sequences in "New York, New York," where three bars of music was one shot, literally. Not four cameras and then you cut it together in the editing room. That's selecting, not directing. It's a different thing, you know?

But directing is, you know, these four punches, one, two, three, four, camera tracks from left to right, swings around, over the shoulder of the guy who is getting hit, and we see a close-up of LaMotta hitting him. And it's got to be a arc, shoom, like this, and as fast as the punches.

And the most important thing was that the camera never, as much as possible, never goes outside the ring - that you're always in the ring with him. Your sensibility is taken on by - his vision becomes your sensibility. In other words, what he perceives in the ring, sometimes I open the ring up. We had a ring that I built special where I made it longer and sometimes wider and it was like, it was like being - imagine being punched in the head, what you hear and what you perceive. You don't know where you are.

EBERT: And on the soundtrack you used breaking glass...

SCORSESE: Breaking glass...

EBERT: And animal noises.

SCORSESE: Animal noises and that sort of thing. Frank Warner did that. He wouldn't tell us after a while what he was using. He said, I'm not going to tell anybody, you know. Whatever it is, it's great - that sort of thing.

But it did take, we had planned five and a half weeks of shooting for it, it did take 10 weeks. And it was very specific. And De Niro would have on the side of the camera a very big punching bag, one of those cylinder ones, it looks like a cylinder, and he - when we were ready to yell, when we were ready to go for a roll, we'd have the slate ready, you know, and start rolling and you'd hear off camera, punching the bag, punching the bag, and then he'd jump into frame sweating, you know, and then the slate.

EBERT: Mm-hmm.

SCORSESE: So he came in already heated, bang, ready to go. It wasn't like, you know, we're wasting any footage. But the physical stamina it took him to sustain 10 weeks of that was amazing and - because he believed in the shots I wanted to get. But what you see here is the final, the final battle in a way, and the punishment he takes, especially the montage, when he gets beaten up by Sugar Ray, is based in a way - the drawings I made were based on the shower scene from "Psycho."

And I shot it in that way, there were 39 shots, and it took 10 days just to shoot those shots, because there were applications and all kinds of makeup problems, and just to get the angle right it was like 10 days. And there's even a shot in there Sam Fuller told me about - he said put the camera in the lens - put the lens in somebody's hand and just swing this way - you'll see it. We even put the camera on the boxing glove and the glove is in the foreground; it comes flying at him this way. It's all in there for maybe like five frames, six frames, you know.

EBERT: Let's look.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Ring Announcer) He has LaMotta on (unintelligible) he's holding on. Well, certainly that was one of the most damaging evidences of punching that you have seen in recent years.

ROBERT DE NIRO: (as Jake LaMotta) Come on. Come on. Come on.

(as Jake LaMotta) Come on. Come on. Come on. What are you staring for? Coming on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Ring Announcer) Robinson, apparently tired, punched with a fare-thee-well and rocked Jake LaMotta right (unintelligible)...

NIRO: (as Jake LaMotta) Come on. Come on, Ray. Come on. Come on, Ray.

GROSS: We heard Roger Ebert interviewing Martin Scorsese in 1997 at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Coming up, we have more of my interview with Ebert and Gene Siskel. Here's a clip from the first TV series they hosted together, a local Chicago program called "Opening Soon At A Theater Near You." And here's an excerpt of their review of Scorsese's 1976 film "Taxi Driver." It starts with Siskel speaking.


SISKEL: I've got a love-hate affair with the whole picture. I love a couple of the performances and the lurid photography of New York at night and that throbbing background music is pretty good too. But I hated the last third of the movie. The violence is so strong I ended up looking away from the film in more ways than one. Not only didn't I see some of the bloodletting. I began not to see the sense of the picture either. Roger?

EBERT: Well, Gene, that's where you and I disagree because it seems to me that what Scorsese is doing is looking not so much at the violence in the city as in the violence that's bottled up inside this person. And it's the kind of violence that we've seen in America in assassins and snipers and so forth. I think it's a very good character portrait - at the end, in particular, where he uses slow motion in order to make the violence really seem particular and drawn out and obsessive.

I think it's a very good movie and I think that like Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" the violence at the end is necessary in order to provide a conclusion to all of this pressure that's been building up all during the film.

SISKEL: I think that sounds good in theory, Roger, but when you end up looking away from the screen because a guy's getting fingers on his hands shot off, somebody else catches a bullet in the neck, and there's blood scattered all over the wall like some kind of modernistic painting, I think that the director is making his film, in a sense, bottom-heavy and blowing the sense that's preceded the picture out of the way. And also, I don't think it is necessary that film end in a big piece of violence. I think that the relationship between the taxi driver and that girl could've been explored in a positive sense that would've been very exciting.

EBERT: Well, I didn't look away from the screen and I think that really what you're asking is that Scorsese had made a different movie than the one he made. In any event, not all the films in Chicago right now are violent, and there's one...

GROSS: Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel from one of their very early TV shows together. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Ebert and Siskel in 1996 onstage in Chicago. I asked them if they ever changed their minds about a film after seeing it a second time. Ebert speaks first.


EBERT: Basically, we see the movie once and we write the review before the movie opens. And the review is the response to having seen the film once. Some movies, even good movies, should only be seen once, or at least at long intervals, because they're not - for example, "Jaws." Great movie. You see it once, you know when the shark is going to jump, right?

It plays differently when you know when the shark is going to jump. You know, as anybody knows who had to sit through an audience with a helpful-type person behind them, well, the shark is about to bite. You know, thank you.

Thank you. Thank you very much. Save my money. And oftentimes, when you go back - here's the thing that happens to me. I will see a bad movie or what I think is a bad movie. And now I've been a film critic long enough. When I reviewed "Bonnie and Clyde" - "Bonnie and Clyde" is now older than "Casablanca" was when I reviewed "Bonnie and Clyde."

So I've been a movie critic since 1967. I will go back now and see a movie that wasn't very good then and isn't very good now but has become more interesting in the intervening 20 or 25 years simply because of the time that has passed. It is now a time capsule. It has intrinsically interesting information in it that I couldn't see at the time because when I saw it, it was now.

GROSS: Right.

EBERT: Some of the early motorcycle pictures like "Hell's Angels on Wheels," for example, worth seeing now because it encapsulates an attitude of the late '60s. I read an article today that really brought that back. Jane Fonda. Now there's - Spy magazine, they had great moments in Oscar history. Jane Fonda was being interviewed by a room full of journalists in her home the year that she - in 1969 she was nominated for an Academy Award.

And she pulled out a joint and said, You mind if I turn on? And all of the journalists said, Oh no, go right ahead. And then she was puffing her marijuana cigarette, and her dad came home, and she ran around the room waving her arms.

This made it into a Rex Reed interview. And I thought, you know, I can remember - the same year I was interviewing Robert Mitchum, and he was smoking marijuana at the - '69. Now, if it happened now, it would be astonishing, but the late '60s were a particular season in our lives, and so movies can get better even though they aren't any better, simply because they evoke associations that we didn't see the first time around.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering film critic Roger Ebert. He died yesterday at the age of 70. Let's get back to the interview I recorded in 1996 with Ebert and his former rival critic and TV co-host, the late Gene Siskel.


GROSS: You both have done profiles of actors in addition to reviewing movies. You write feature stories. My experience is that sometimes actors are very temperamental and that if you're not asking them questions that will help them promote their film, if you go what publicists like to call off-topic, that they'll sometimes get very temperamental and even walk out.

EBERT: It didn't use to be that way. I mean the key word in your observation is publicist. When I started, you kind of hung out with the stars. I mean Gene and I remember a day when John Wayne came to town...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

EBERT: see his friend Step'n Fetchit, who was dying in University of Chicago Hospital. And he called up the movie critics and said: Come on over here to the Conrad Hilton and we'll drink some tequila and talk.

And we, the four movie critics at that time, turned up, you know, with our tongues hanging out, delighted to just sit around and talk with the Duke for a while. Well, these days, of course, with spin control, you'd have somebody feeding him his soundbites, you know.

And I've done many interviews in the past where you really got to spend time with a person in an unstructured environment, maybe in an environment where they didn't always look their best. As, for example, the day I spent with Lee Marvin when he was dead drunk. And yet it was a very good story. He liked it. He talked to me again many times later in his career. He thought it was a good story about that day.

These days the publicists only want to present the soundbite opportunity, and the sad thing is, the lessons they've learned in promoting movies are now being used in promoting politicians and we are getting the same spin control on politicians that we get on movie stars.

GROSS: Did you have any publicists from Lee Marvin's movie call you up and say please don't mention that he was drunk, please don't quote certain things that he's saying?

EBERT: Please don't mention that the dog came out of his bedroom with a pair of panties in its mouth and his girlfriend said, Whose are those panties? And Lee Marvin said, Michelle, those are your panties. And she said, Those are not my panties. And Marvin said, Bad dog.

GROSS: Did anyone ask you not to quote that?

EBERT: That's right in the story, it's in there.

GROSS: Any repercussions?

The publicist was there the whole time. He was going out to get more beer.

Well, I bet you've learned interesting things about what it means to be a celebrity in America, through the own recognition you've achieved as film critics.

EBERT: A long time ago I interviewed Michael Caine. He came to America to make a movie called "Hurry Sundown" with Otto Preminger, after having become a success in "Alfie" and "The Ipcress File." And I said, What does it feel like to be a movie star? And he said, You can't go into a dirty bookstore anymore.

He said, I tried it. He says, In England we don't have the kind of pornography you have over here, but I'd heard about the stores in Times Square. And so I looked in through the window of one of them; I was curious. You remember, Michael Caine at this time was in his 20s, young man, first trip to America.

GROSS: Yeah.

EBERT: I looked in through the window with my trained actor's eye - I wish I could do his Cockney accent. With my trained actor's eye, I quickly realized that there is no eye contact in a porno store. Everybody looks as tunnel vision, nobody looks at anybody else, and I realized - he says, and this is a way - an actor would notice this.

And I congratulated myself. I said, Michael, you can walk right in there because nobody will look at you. So I walked right in. But he said, Unfortunately there was a gent on an elevated stool with a microphone whose job it was to say, OK, gents, this isn't the library, make your purchases. And he got on his microphone and said, Look who we have on the rubber wear section - Michael Caine.

And to a degree, that's, when he told me that I was not on television. I didn't realize that's what happens. You can't flip the bird to anybody in traffic. You always have to be nice to people on the elevator, because they know who you are and they're going to tell everyone - everyone - if you were not nice. And whatever you do, it's going to get back to you or...

SISKEL: Enlarged.

Enlarged. Yeah.

GROSS: Now, has that affected the way you interview movie stars, because you've experienced, to some extent...

EBERT: Well, I'll tell you what has affected me more, and I've thought about that, because the first big star I interviewed was John Wayne and I was completely intimidated.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

EBERT: It was during the filming of the "The Green Berets" and there was an overhead shot that was being set up so nobody out of uniform could be visible on this airfield. So they told him on a walkie-talkie that the interviewer was there, and he came walking in full battle fatigues with a helmet and a rifle and a side arm and a radio and a canteen and grenades and a backpack and boots and knives and, you know, bayonets, walking toward me for about a quarter of a mile.

And I couldn't move. I had to wait in the shade. He got up to me, he stuck out a hand and he said, John Wayne. And I said, I know.

And later, as I began to interview people of comparable stature, who were younger, such as Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep, I realized a funny thing. For all of us, movie stars are the people who were stars when we were growing up. If they're your age or younger, they're just people.

GROSS: Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel recorded onstage in Chicago in 1996. Ebert died yesterday at the age of 70. Like so many of his admirers, I'm grateful for his love of films and for the way he spread the word about them, trying to make sure that even obscure films, if they were good, had a life.

We'll close with the theme of one of his favorite films, "The Third Man." He actually used this as the theme of his final TV series, "Ebert Presents At the Movies."


GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website,

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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