My favorite Roger Ebert story (I have a few), dates back to the early 1990s in Toronto at what was then called “The Festival of Festivals”—a few years later it would become what is now better known as the Toronto International Film Festival. I was in the lobby of a lovely jewel box of a Toronto cinema when Roger Ebert sat down next to me. At the time, Ebert was known to millions as the co-host of the TV show, At the Movies, where Ebert and rival critic Gene Siskel dueled in a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” verbal joust.
To be sure, Ebert was a television personality and would regularly appear on Johnny Carson or David Letterman’s late night chat shows. But I recognized Ebert as history’s first Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic. That day in Toronto, I shared with Ebert that, when I was starting out as a reporter, a grizzled editor advised me to pay attention to “that guy” from the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s the first film critic that doesn’t talk down to his readers,” my editor said. Ebert loved that story. We would see each other a few more times, always in Toronto; and somehow Ebert remembered me, barking out my name across a crowded theater lobby (which somehow always got a lot of other people’s attention).
Some years later, I asked Ebert about his by-then infamous article titled “Ten Greatest Films of All Time,” published in 1991. The usual suspects were on Ebert’s much-coveted list: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, La Dolce Vita, Raging Bull. I couldn’t argue with any of them.
“But why is 28 Up on your list?” I asked.
Ebert’s eyes lit up like a Macy’s window at Christmastime.
“What you absolutely need to know is that my love stretches far beyond 28 Up,’ he said (rather loudly, because by now our conversation had attracted a crowd) “There’s 7 Up. Then, there’s 7 Plus Seven Up, 21 Up, 28 Up...”
He had my full attention; and for the next few minutes, Roger Ebert embedded in my brain, instilling the tangible value of a truly good film critic. While confirming an unbridled passion for the art, Ebert persuaded me to care about something that, up to that moment, I had scant interest in.
“No other film I have ever seen does a better job of illustrating the mysterious and haunting way in which the cinema bridges time,” Ebert wrote about the 7 Up documentary series, which traces the fortunes (or lack thereof) of a group of then-seven-year olds from lower-, middle- or upper-class British families. The premise of the first film in 1964 came from a motto attributed to 16th-century missionary Francis Xavier: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”
And now, I’m happy to report that 63 Up comes our way Friday, Feb. 21, at The Flicks. The ninth and latest episode from director Michael Apted (no worries, you needn’t have seen any previous editions), reveals even more life-changing decisions, shocking announcements, and joy and tears in equal measure among the original group of 14. Apted, a 20-something up-and-comer when he directed 7 Up, has since directed The Chronicles of Narnia, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and the 007 flick The World is Not Enough. But the now-79-year-old Apted returns to the 7 Up franchise to chart the course of his original group of subjects (many are now grandparents and semi-retired).
I saw Roger Ebert one final time in 2011. He had undergone several surgeries in an attempt to battle cancer in his thyroid and salivary glands (the surgeries would rob him of his ability to speak). Making matters a bit worse, he had recently fractured his hip. But there he was, sitting next to me in the lobby of a Toronto cinema, one final time. Suffice it to say, I did all the talking.
I told him that, at his encouragement, my life was a bit better for “catching up” and screening each of the 7 Up films—by then, the latest installment was 49 Up. Ebert’s eyes twinkled in “I told you so” fashion. He would live long enough to see 56 Up in 2013—he wrote that he found it to be “deeply moving.” Ebert died a few months later.
And now, the never-ending river of time has washed up 63 Up on our cinematic shore. I’m fairly certain that Roger would be very pleased. I know I am.