LOS ANGELES — Roger Ebert could be tough on filmmakers, but unlike many critics, he earned their respect.
So much so that they claimed him as one of their own when the Directors Guild of America made Ebert an honorary lifetime member at the group's awards ceremony four years ago.
What better testimony for a life's work in a profession that typically draws sneers from filmmakers and fans alike? But then Ebert, who died Thursday at age 70, was not just any critic. He was THE critic.
At the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967 and through decades as a pioneering film reviewer on television, Ebert championed tiny gems that he scouted out at film festivals and took Hollywood's biggest names to task when they missed the mark.
Ebert drew his own criticism that the thumbs-up, thumbs-down trademark of his TV shows over-simplified the way we look at films. Yet with his chubby frame and thick-rimmed glasses, he popularized the notion of the dweebish critic as arbiter of cultural taste, inspiring a generation of TV and online reviewers much as Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of investigative journalists.
Just as inspirational was how Ebert continued the work he loved through repeated ailments. He lost parts of his jaw and the ability to speak after cancer surgeries in 2006, yet he came back to writing fulltime and eventually returned to television.
And that famous thumb barely scratched the surface of Ebert's work as a critic, student and just plain lover of film.
"Roger loved movies. They were his life. His reviews went far deeper than simply thumbs up or thumbs down," said Steven Spielberg, one of the filmmakers who honored Ebert at the Directors Guild ceremony. "He wrote with passion through a real knowledge of film and film history, and in doing so, helped many movies find their audiences."
Ebert died at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, two days after announcing on his blog that he was undergoing radiation treatment for a recurrence of cancer.
"I've lost the love of my life," his wife, Chaz Ebert, said in a statement Thursday, "and the world has lost a visionary and a creative and generous spirit who touched so many people all over the world. We had a lovely, lovely life together, more beautiful and epic than a movie. It had its highs and the lows, but was always experienced with good humor, grace and a deep abiding love for each other."
Ebert's criticism earned him a Pulitzer in 1975, and he wrote more than 20 books that included two volumes of essays on classic movies. He hung out with filmmakers from Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman to Billy Wilder and Mel Brooks. He was the first critic given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The Directors Guild ceremony featured recorded testimonials from Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and others who amusingly recalled good and bad notices from Ebert and made it clear that his reviews kept them on their toes.
"The role of the critic is to call them as they see them and Roger did so with integrity. In more than four decades of honest review of our films, Roger demanded excellence – but recognized our directorial achievements," Directors Guild President Taylor Hackford said Thursday.
The feeling was mutual. Unable to speak at the guild ceremony after his cancer surgery, Ebert shared his affection for the directors in a statement recorded via a synthetic computer voice with a British accent.
"The motion picture is the art form I love above all others," Ebert told the directors. "It is the symphony, and you are the conductors."
It's a bit like the sheepdog buddying around with the wolf, when filmmakers can be so chummy and admiring of a critic. Ebert's thumbs-up was a resounding seal of approval, his thumbs-down a kiss of death, yet his easygoing nature and his passion for film made him as much a part of Hollywood as the actors, filmmakers and studio bosses.
"We love Roger. Isn't that funny?" said Warner Bros. distribution executive Jeff Goldstein.
"You couldn't ask for a more extraordinary champion of films both large and small," said Sony Pictures spokesman Steve Elzer. "We all paid attention to whatever direction his thumb was pointing."
Ebert eloquently defined his passion for film in a speech read by his wife, Chaz, at his Directors Guild honor.
"The movies come closer than any other art form in giving us the experience of walking in someone else's shoes," she read on Ebert's behalf. "They allow us an opportunity to experience what it would be like to live within another gender, race, religion, nationality, or period of time. They expand us, they improve us, and sometimes they ennoble us."
Along with reviews, Ebert did interviews and profiles of Hollywood's top talent, including legends such as John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Alfred Hitchcock. He crossed to the other side during a leave of absence from the Sun-Times in 1969 to write the screenplay for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," which drew an adults-only X rating and became a cult favorite.
In 1975, Ebert and Gene Siskel, film critic for the rival Chicago Tribune, teamed for a show that began on Chicago's PBS station, then went nationwide – the two trading opinions on new movies from a set resembling a theater balcony. They continued their TV partnership with a syndicated show, each giving thumbs up or down on the films and engaging in lively sparring matches on air even as they remained close friends off camera.
Ebert continued the show with Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper after Siskel's death in 1999. In early 2011, Ebert launched a new show, "Ebert Presents At the Movies." It had new hosts, but featured Ebert in his own segment, "Roger's Office." He used a chin prosthesis and enlisted voice-over guests to read his reviews.
While some called Ebert an inspiration, he told The Associated Press in an email in January 2011 that bravery and courage "have little to do with it."
"You play the cards you're dealt," Ebert wrote. "What's your choice? I have no pain. I enjoy life, and why should I complain?"
Spielberg lamented that with Ebert's death, the "balcony is closed forever."
Warner Bros. executive Goldstein prefers to imagine Ebert and Siskel reunited and doing what they loved – reviewing films.
"They're together. They're on seven nights a week, and they start tonight," Goldstein said. "And you can just see them on the balcony now."