For many, the Oscars red carpet is more interesting than the award ceremony itself. We live in an age when we fetishize celebrity, scrutinize actors’ personal lives and analyze what they wore. But some people don’t interest themselves with the sideshow; for them the movies are what count. Gene Siskel was such a person.
Siskel—and the partner with whom he will always be associated, Roger Ebert—simply assessed films. They talked about what was worth seeing and what was not. Those movies they loved got two thumbs up; those they hated, dos thumbs down. Simple. Thanks to Siskel and Ebert’s intelligence, love for film and skill as critics, the thumbs up or down gesture became an icon of reviewing.
Gene Siskel passed away in 1999. He had been born into a Jewish family on the north side of Chicago just 53 years before. When Siskel was only 10 years old, both his parents had died so his aunt and uncle adopted him and his two siblings. His aunt and uncle were founding members of the local synagogue and Judaism would prove to be an important aspect of Siskel’s life.
After graduating from a military academy high school, Siskel went off to Yale where he majored in philosophy. Four years later he considered law school before thinking maybe journalism could be fun. “I told my dad I thought I’d like to try a job in newspapers, he said he’d give me a ride downtown,” Siskel recalled. “We had always been a Sun-Times family. For some reason, I never knew why, he dropped me off in front of Tribune Tower.” This proved fateful. For within a year, Siskel was the film critic at the Chicago Tribune.
Chicago is a city of two well-respected newspapers: the Tribune and the Sun-Times. Across the street from the young gun Siskel was a more experienced critic at the Sun-Times, Roger Ebert. The papers competed and the writers were rivals. “Both of us were obsessed with our newspaper jobs. That was our identity,” Ebert remembered. “TV was part-time.” The two met in 1969 but cared little for one another. “We were competitive, but not equally competitive,” said Ebert. “Gene was the most competitive man I have ever met.”
Although the pair would become synonymous with one another, their relationship at first was, as Ebert put it, “so ferocious that for the first six years when we were working across the street from each other on Chicago newspapers we hardly had a single conversation.”
But then came TV. In 1975 the public broadcast station in Chicago, WTTW, decided it needed more film discussion and headhunted the pair who’d barely conversed. They both agreed and thus was born the show “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You.” It soon became “Sneak Previews” but the talking heads remained the same: the Chicago Tribune’s Siskel and the Sun Times’ Ebert. Although the show proved a success, the pair did not get on.
Siskel and Ebert remained rival newsmen from Chicago’s two great papers put together on television and, Ebert recalled, “for a long time we fought it out on the show.” They fought over who would speak first at the start of each show; they fought over who would give the main review for each film; they even, their producer Thea Flaum said, fought over where to get lunch. The only way the two men could resolve these issues was by flipping a coin.
Ironically for a pair of critics who cared little for movie gossip, preferring to focus on film, the two’s contentiousness became famous. In time, it became their shtick. But eventually, said Ebert, “we realized: ‘hey, we’re doing this show together. This is something we’re building together. And from then on, it became an altogether different ball game.”
After six years on public television the duo moved to commercial syndication, launching a new show called “At the Movies.” Four years later, the duo’s show became “Siskel & Ebert.” But showing success had not changed them, they still disagreed on whose name should go first—the only way they could agree on whose name would go first was a coin flip.
The partnership endured. Siskel and Ebert worked together for 24 years. “We kinda knew when they other guy was going to stop talking,” Ebert told Larry King, “we had been through so many movies together and so many experiences together that we could read each other’s mind sometimes.”
Although their reputation was of a pair constantly feuding, and although, according to Ebert, “we both knew the buttons to push on the other one, and we both made little effort to hide our feelings, warm or cold,” the odd couple inevitably grew closer. As Ebert recalled, “‘You may be an asshole,’ Gene would say, ‘but you’re my asshole.’”
Outside of work, Siskel was a devoted family man to his wife, Marlene, and their two daughters and son. He was also immensely dedicated to the Chicago Bulls, a season ticketholder for two decades. His and Marlene’s front row tickets were, Ebert recalled, “not cheap, but more important to Gene than a car.” Larry King recalled that Siskel “was very, very family orientated. Very Jewish.” “Yes,” Ebert replied, “in the Jewish faith there’s a tradition that the family and friends fill in the grave—actually move in the earth into the grave and Marlene put down the first layer of earth on top of the casket and everybody there was really devastated and touched by that.”
Siskel talked about the importance of religion to him. Ebert remembered Siskel saying, “I had a lot of long talks with my father about our religion. He said it wasn’t necessary to think too much about an afterlife. What was important was this life, how we live it, what we contribute, our families, and the memories we leave.” Ebert also recalled his partner articulating that, “the importance of Judaism isn’t simply theological, or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue.”
In 1988 Larry King asked Siskel what made him want to become a film critic. “It was simply going to the movies that impressed me,” Siskel replied. “Because this was the first time that I was allowed to be an adult. I was given two quarters: one for the movie and one for my refreshments. And it was an eight-block walk, and I went with my friends every Saturday. And I was, in my mind, an adult. And that’s the magic of movies. It’s the first time that a child gets to make his own decisions—which one shall I see? I think that’s why they hook us so early, why everyone wants to be in the movies, or see them, or talk about them. It’ll never go away.”
We have just had this year’s Oscars and the consensus was it was meh. Back in 1999, when Whoopi Goldberg hosted the ceremony, the “in memorial” section, always the evening’s most maudlin, failed to include Siskel. This was a wrong that had to be righted. So Goldberg said, “Gene, honey, wherever you are, here’s to you,” and very simply gave two thumbs up.