He democratized film criticism, fought passionately for better movies and showed us what living – and dying – with grace really meant.
If that's not a friend, then maybe I'm unclear on the definition.
Back in 1975, when Ebert won that Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Chicago Sun-Times (the first movie critic ever to do so), film criticism was a clubby, snooty bastion. Many critics were sanctimonious blowhards, talking about semiotics and cinema theory, and they didn't seem to care whether any of us who lined up at the box office on Friday nights were listening.
Ebert was different. He was on our side, writing boldly but elegantly about what he liked and what he didn't – for prestige and popcorn pictures alike. He wasn't shy to say when he loved a movie, swooning over E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Pulp Fiction in equal measure. But he was just as quick to say what he hated. (Or, in the case of Rob Reiner's North, what he "hated, hated, hated, hated, hated.") It honestly was that simple – and every critic working today knows just how hard that is to pull off.
The genius stroke was moving his act to TV. Ebert and Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel debuted Sneak Previews in 1975, reviewing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in their first episode. While other critics made grand pronouncements about cinema, these guys yelled about – pardon me, debated – movies. Passionately, hilariously, often loudly, they turned watching the people who watch movies into terrific entertainment.
And then, of course, there were the thumbs. A simple gesture borrowed from the ancient Romans, their thumbs up or thumbs down could make or break films. Yes or no. Go or stay home. The thumbs became so iconic, in fact, that we all mimicked them, voting on movies with our digits. That's democracy. That's a national conversation about film.
After that, wherever film conversation went, so went Ebert. He wrote books about movies, blogged, Tweeted, did whatever he had to do to keep the conversation going, even after a 2006 surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his salivary gland robbed him of speech. He did it because he was passionate about movies, sure, but also because he loved the idea of people answering back.
When I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Toronto Film Festival a few years ago, he didn't care that I'd only been a critic for a matter of months. He didn't care where I worked or what I'd done. He just wanted to know one thing: "What have you seen that you liked?" And then he listened.