Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebertby Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert has been writing film reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times for nearly forty years. And during those four decades, his wide knowledge, keen judgment, prodigious energy, and sharp sense of humor have made him America’s most celebrated film critic. He was the first such critic to win a Pulitzer Prize—one of just three film critics ever to/i>
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Roger Ebert has been writing film reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times for nearly forty years. And during those four decades, his wide knowledge, keen judgment, prodigious energy, and sharp sense of humor have made him America’s most celebrated film critic. He was the first such critic to win a Pulitzer Prize—one of just three film critics ever to receive that honor—and the only one to have a star dedicated to him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His groundbreaking hit TV show, At the Movies, meanwhile, has made “two thumbs up” one of the most coveted hallmarks in the entire industry.
No critic alive has reviewed more movies than Roger Ebert, and yet his essential writings have never been collected in a single volume—until now. With Awake in the Dark, both fans and film buffs can finally bask in the best of Ebert’s work. The reviews, interviews, and essays collected here present a picture of this indispensable critic’s numerous contributions to the cinema and cinephilia. From The Godfather to GoodFellas, from Cries and Whispers to Crash, the reviews in Awake in the Dark span some of the most exceptional periods in film history, from the dramatic rise of rebel Hollywood and the heyday of the auteur, to the triumph of blockbuster films such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to the indie revolution that is still with us today.
The extraordinary interviews gathered in Awake in the Dark capture Ebert engaging not only some of the most influential directors of our time—Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Werner Herzog, and Ingmar Bergman—but also some of the silver screen’s most respected and dynamic personalities, including actors as diverse as Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Warren Beatty, and Meryl Streep. Ebert’s remarkable essays play a significant part in Awake in the Dark as well. The book contains some of Ebert’s most admired pieces, among them a moving appreciation of John Cassavetes and a loving tribute to the virtues of black-and-white films.
If Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were godmother and godfather to the movie generation, then Ebert is its voice from within—a writer whose exceptional intelligence and daily bursts of insight and enthusiasm have shaped the way we think about the movies. Awake in the Dark, therefore, will be a treasure trove not just for fans of this seminal critic, but for anyone desiring a fascinating and compulsively readable chronicle of film since the late 1960s.
“Roger Ebert understands how to pop the hood of a movie and tell us how it runs, while still enjoying the ride with his box of popcorn or, in some cases, a bottle of aspirin. Awake in the Dark captures both those sides of Ebert and shows him to be a serious friend of film, someone who loves the movies as much as he understands them.”
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AWAKE IN THE DARK
THE BEST OF ROGER EBERT
By ROGER EBERT THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2006 The Ebert Company, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Gene Siskel and I hosted a tribute to Warren Beatty in the 1980s at the Toronto Film Festival. Many of those he worked with agreed to appear: Arthur Penn, Robert Towne, Jerzy Kosinski, Jack Nicholson. Beatty himself did not agree to appear. He agreed to sit in the audience next to Diane Keaton and see how the tribute went, and then, when it concluded, he would see how he felt about getting up on the stage. In the event, he did mount to the stage, but to make remarks, not to answer questions.
He is protective of himself. Once I went to interview him and as I waited in a hotel room I was asked by a publicist what I thought about Beatty's new movie. I later discovered that he was sitting on the other side of a door, listening.
In Los Angeles one day I got a message from James Toback, inviting me to visit the set of his new movie Bugsy. I am customarily uninformed about films in production; I don't much read the trades and the press releases, or I would have known that Bugsy was not precisely Toback's film. He wrote it. Warren Beatty was directing it and starring in it. I arrived at the house, was pointed up the driveway bya production assistant, walked in behind the cameras, and was seen by Beatty:
"Roger. Uh, yeah. Hi. Yeah. How are you?" This was all clearly an evasion of the question he wanted to ask, which was, what in the hell was I doing there? It was a closed set. Toback materialized and my presence was accounted for. How Toback eventually explained his invitation to Beatty is something I have never asked him.
Do I sound critical of Beatty? The fact is that I have enormous admiration for him. He has made some great films. He was personally responsible for the existence of Bonnie and Clyde, and it was his decision to trust Arthur Penn after they had gone down in flames together with their previous film, the underrated Mickey One (1965). It was Beatty who persuaded Jack Warner to give the film a proper release, although several versions exist of the story about how he did that. I am proud that as a new critic I was absolutely right about the greatness of Bonnie and Clyde at a time when much critical opinion was against it.
I don't think Beatty owes me a thing. His job is to make the movies. He can refuse to get up on the stage if he wants to, he can listen to my opinion of his movie before he talks to me, he can suggest a luncheon interview and then take me to a hot dog stand. "I want you to personally experience the best hot dogs in Burbank," he told me. I did.
SEPTEMBER 24, 1967
LONDON-No film in the last 10 years has gotten better reviews in London than Warren Beatty's Bonnie and Clyde, which opened here last week and in Chicago Friday. Beatty had all the reviews clipped out and stuck in a cardboard folder, which was resting on the coffee table in his room at the Gloucester Hotel. He kept pointing to the folder as if it was an exhibit and this was a trial.
"Hard to believe," he said. "Great reviews. Tremendous reviews. One critic called it the best American movie since 'On the Waterfront.' And you know what really hurts?"
He paused, and then continued to pace up and down the yellow carpet.
"What really hurts," he said, "is that one lousy review in the New York Times. Bosley Crowther says your movie is a glorification of violence, a cheap display of sentimental claptrap and that's that. The New York Times has spoken, hallelujah."
So Beatty, who produced and starred in Bonnie and Clyde, was getting it off his chest at last. It was the first time he had replied to Crowther's charges, although Arthur Penn, the film's director, had a succinct word or two to pronounce about Crowther last week.
The whole Bonnie and Clyde controversy is something of a rarity in American movie circles. You'd probably have to go back to Psycho to find another Hollywood film that has generated such intense debate. There's a little war going on right now in the little world of movie critics and it's beginning to look as if Crowther is getting the worst of it.
"The man at the New York Times has once again blown his tiny supply of cool," Wilfrid Sheed, Esquire's movie critic, wrote this week. Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice accused Crowther of setting back the American film industry by refusing to recognize a great film when it finally made one. Variety covered Crowther's attack on violence cheek by jowl with a paragraph reporting that the Legion of Decency had praised the movie for its treatment and approach.
And after Crowther, in a second article, served notice to Hollywood that he will "no longer favorably review a movie with too much violence in it," Orson Bean wrote the Times: "More and more it seems that a liberal is someone who will fight to the death for your right to agree with him."
The funny thing is that the storm over Bonnie and Clyde has blown up so quickly. This wasn't exactly a movie that everyone stood around for months with their tongues hanging out waiting to see. For a long time, Bonnie and Clyde was just some movie that Warren Beatty was shooting down in Texas. It was about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, two folk heroes of the 1930s, who robbed banks, killed people, and snapped each other's pictures to send in to the newspapers. The Barrow Gang, as the ads have it, "was the strangest damn gang you ever heard of."
The story sounded interesting enough, sure, but who expected much? Penn was a director with moments of brilliance but an uneven track record, and Beatty-well, everybody knew Beatty was a crazy kid, kind of eccentric, who might throw an ashtray at you.
That was the attitude until Bonnie and Clyde was premiered at the Montreal Film Festival, when suddenly people realized they had something to deal with here. This was probably the best American film of the year. Beatty and Penn (who would have guessed it?) had gone out into the desert and labored and brought forth a masterpiece.
Most of the people who saw the film believed so, anyway. But not Crowther. And not-for a week, anyway-Joseph Morgenstern, the critic at Newsweek. In an unprecedented about-face, Morgenstern panned Bonnie and Clyde one week, and then reversed his stand in the next issue. "I was wrong," he wrote, analyzing where he'd gone astray and praising the movie extravagantly.
The Newsweek episode brought a smile to Beatty's lips. "Can you picture it?" he said. "Morgenstern is honest enough to admit he changed his mind. So he goes in to the editors, and they say, Good Lord, you can't change your mind. You're a critic-you're infallible. But Morgenstern stands his ground, so they let him have his way. I'll bet some doors slammed at Newsweek."
So Newsweek came around. The other reviews were good. All except for Crowther. And it was his review that Beatty simply could not forget. He walked up and down in his hotel room, he shook his head, he picked up the clippings of the London reviews for reassurance, he talked.
"Because Crowther writes for the New York Times," he said, "he has influence all out of proportion to his importance. Out in the bush leagues, the theater owners, they read the Times. For them, Crowther is God. Everybody in the world can like a movie, and if Crowther doesn't, he kills it."
Beatty said part of the trouble might have been the audience at Montreal.
"Maybe Crowther thought when the audience cheered, it was cheering for violence. See, there are several scenes in which we carefully develop one emotion in the audience, and then-zing!-we cut very fast to the opposite emotion. So you're sitting there laughing and suddenly you look at the screen and what you're laughing at isn't very funny at all.
"That was kind of the way with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. They didn't seem to be able to see their crimes in context. They killed all these people, and it was still a game for them, a lark. What we tried to do in the movie was put the humor and the violence in the same framework, to make a point about the social climate that produced the Barrow Gang."
Beatty said he would give an example.
"Bonnie and Clyde are strictly amateurs at the hold-up game, of course. They take incredible risks for nothing at all. So remember the scene where Clyde is waving around this enormous pistol, and he's in a grocery store and all he's stealing is a sack of groceries. So the grocer fills the Kraft paper bag, and Clyde says. 'You sure you ain't got any peach pies?' And the grocer is very nervous with that thing waving in his face, and he says, 'No, sir, mister. I'm sure we ain't got any.'
"And so the audience laughs because this is so ridiculous. But just then a big fat butcher lunges at Clyde with a meat cleaver. A meat cleaver! And the audience says this isn't so funny. But then Clyde and this fat butcher roll around on the floor, and that's funny, because this butcher looks so comical and so they forget the meat cleaver, they start to laugh again. But then Clyde bashes the butcher on the side of the head-splat!-with his pistol, and then he swings back and hits him on the other side of the head-SPLAT!"
Beatty swung his hand back and forth, fast, as if the pistol were still in it. Then he leaned forward enthusiastically. "What we did," he said, "was, we quadrupled the sound level on the second splat. So it was incredibly loud and sickening. And the audience found the laugh dying on their lips. They hated us for that, hated us for playing with their emotions that way.
"But then-we change the mood again." Beatty sounded like a kid explaining a trick play around left end. "Bonnie and Clyde drive away in their touring car, and on the sound track we have Flatt and Scruggs playing 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown,' giving the whole thing kind of a carnival air. Only this time the music isn't appropriate, see? It's music that says laugh, but you can't laugh. The whole movie kind of weaves back and forth between making you laugh and making you sick."
Beatty was interrupted by a knock on the door. He admitted a bellhop, who carried a gift-wrapped present.
"Humm, probably cyanide," Beatty said, unwrapping the parcel. It was a bottle of champagne. He read the card aloud. It said, "To America's Greatest Producer."
Beatty smiled. "Well, how about that." he said. He put the champagne on the mantelpiece. Then he sat down, for the first time during the interview, and crossed his legs.
"There is one consolation," Beatty said. "At least Crowther was furious at the movie. I couldn't have taken it if he'd been indifferent. But how can you take anyone seriously in this day and age who calls a character in a movie a 'young tough?' I ask you."
Beatty was on his feet again by this time, looking out the window. He said he was only going to be in London for another day or two, and then back to Hollywood.
"A lot of people out there just kind of dismiss me as an irresponsible kid," he said. "All of Hollywood is old, old, old, for that matter. There are as many good young actors and directors in America as there are in Europe, but Hollywood shuts them out. Hollywood is afraid of young blood. It's a ghost town."
He pointed a finger and posed a question. "I'm twenty-eight years old," he said. "I'll give you five seconds to name me another Hollywood leading man under the age of thirty-five."
It was hard to do. Promising newcomers, yes, but no stars. And even later with plenty of time to think, only three names came to mind: Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon, and George Hamilton. That's food for thought right there.
Frank Casey was the Warner Brothers publicist in Chicago when I became the Sun-Times film critic. He'd gotten his job when mayor Martin Kennelly suggested him to Jack Warner at a time when Kennelly was owed a favor. The mayor called in Frank and informed him that he was now working for Warner Brothers. Frank was not sure this was good news. He had a job at Coca-Cola.
"What can they give you that Warner Brothers can't?" asked the mayor.
Shortly after I joined the paper as a feature writer, Casey announced a junket to the set of Camelot and the paper sent me. In those days we accepted studio junkets without a moment's thought. Casey liked my story about Camelot and told the editor of the paper I should be their new film critic. That had something to do with me getting the job, when it opened up. On the other hand, I was once on Casey's enemies list and did not get invited to a screening or an interview for two years. He never told me why. Then we were buddies again. It was said he had never sat through an entire movie. He once called me up and said, "Whoosis wants to know if you want to talk to Whatsis."
Casey engineered the interview with James Stewart, when I had been on the job less than a year. Firecreek was a Universal picture, but Stewart said he wouldn't do the junket unless Casey handled it. They had a history together. Warners loaned him out. Casey had a history with Ronald Reagan, too; as a favor to his friend Dr. Davis, he introduced the doctor's daughter Nancy to Ronnie.
At the wake at Gene and Georgetti's steak house after Casey's death, his bosses got up and told stories about his expense accounts. A waiter showed me an American Express machine. "This is the machine we used," he said, "when you had dinner here with Frank every night."
"I had dinner with Frank every night?" I said.
"Including Mondays, when we are closed."
Re-reading this James Stewart interview, I am struck by the fact that I apparently asked him why he'd never played a bad guy, and he answered me, "I just really don't know if I could play a heavy." Perhaps he was being nice to me. Certainly he knew, as I obviously did not in 1968, that he had played bad guys. By the time I wrote the piece "Mitch and Jimmy: Some Thoughts," I knew that. You learn on the job.
EL PASO, TX-The morning after the world premiere of Firecreek, his seventieth motion picture, James Stewart pulled a maroon dressing gown on over his shirt and slacks to ward off the chill in his hotel suite.
This took a minute or so and then he returned to his chair and sat down, crossing his arms, rocking back and forth slowly, trying to frame the right words to answer the question his visitor had just posed.
"Oh, I guess I've been asked often enough when I'm going to get around to playing a bad guy," he said at last. "I never have. Seems like everyone else has taken the plunge. John Wayne. Henry Fonda."
He took another pause, and you could see the grin beginning around his eyes. It was a slow grin that took its time working around to the rest of his face. The Stewart grin.
"I don't know," he said at last. "I just really don't know if I could play a heavy. I've played heroes all my life, and now-well, it would be like playing Hamlet. It's not that you don't want to, but you just don't know if you could. I've never seriously considered it."
He sipped from a mug of black coffee. "It wouldn't be in character, would it?" he said.
James Stewart playing a bad guy? No, that wouldn't be in character. Not after Lindy, who flew the ocean, and Mr. Smith, who went to Washington, and Destry, who rode again.
"The Stewart character usually isn't aggressive enough to be a bad guy," Stewart mused. "It's all he can manage to be the good guy. He'd rather just plod along, getting through life without too much commotion, but somehow he stumbles into a dangerous situation and has to get out.
"That's the kind of character I play in Firecreek-a part-time sheriff who gets paid two bucks a month and doesn't want to shoot out nothing with nobody."
That was also the kind of character in Rear Window, wasn't it?
"Right," Stewart said. "The guy who has a broken leg, and discovers a crime by accident. He gets involved against his better judgment. For his troubles, he gets another broken leg. Some hero."
As Stewart spoke, his voice fell into the famous drawl. It is not an act. It is the way Stewart talks, and it is catching.
After five minutes with him you're likely to discover, to your embarrassment, that you're doing a Jimmy Stewart imitation.
"Don't let it bother you," Stewart said, smiling. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing a Jimmy Stewart imitation myself. All of this"-he waved vaguely at the suite-"wasn't planned. I'm a lazy person. By nature I would have planned a quieter life. I don't act. I react."
Excerpted from AWAKE IN THE DARK by ROGER EBERT Copyright © 2006 by The Ebert Company, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Roger Ebert is the Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and has cohosted a weekly movie review program on television since 1975, first with Gene Siskel and since 2000 with Richard Roeper. He is the author of numerous books on film, including The Great Movies, The Great Movies II, and Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook.
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There is a wealth of information here, not just reviews of movies, but also interviews with actors and directors, essays on the film industry, Best Film Lists, Overlooked films, and film criticism. My favorite pieces were the essays, although he proved to be wrong in his Celluloid vs. Digital opinion that theaters would never go digital and of course they have. I liked the essay on black and white films, I too love the oldies.