Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever
Matt Singer | Putnam | Oct. 2023 | 352 pages | ISBN: 9780593540152 | $29
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert spent so long reviewing movies on television that, when Siskel died in 1999, I could not remember a time when I hadn’t watched them. They started their first review program six years before I was born (I’m 42), and as far back as I can remember, I can still picture my parents tuning in to hear about the newest movies—movies that, for the most part, they would only see on rented VHS tapes, months later. I tended to prefer Ebert to Siskel, not for any dramatic reason except that my local paper carried Ebert’s print reviews but not Siskel’s, so I felt like I understood his thinking more. Even when I was a teenager, Siskel & Ebert was still appointment viewing, and I recall setting extra time on the VCR to record the show when the local ABC affiliate’s sports coverage pushed it to odd hours of afternoon or overnight and we weren’t sure exactly when it would start.
But over the years that followed, though a succession of hosts and format changes, hearing people talk about movies seemed increasingly less important, and I didn’t make extraordinary efforts to keep up with Ebert & Roeper or whatever the now-forgotten successors called themselves. I enjoyed Roger Ebert’s writing—he taught me something of how to effectively criticize—and I continued to read his reviews until his 2013 death, but the movies no longer felt important. After Ebert died, I mostly stopped reading movie reviews, and, frankly, I paid very little attention to movies. They are, today, just another form of media content, a TV episode of double length.
Matt Singer’s Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever tries to recapture some of the interest and impact that TV’s most prominent movie reviewers had in their heyday. It’s a breezy, nostalgic tour through a fading memory of a time when movies shaped culture and critics could shape movies. But Singer struggles mightily with the most basic question about the book, the same one Siskel and Ebert asked of movies: Why should I care? As I read Opposable Thumbs, I couldn’t help but think of Matt Singer as Gloria Swanson and his book as Norma Desmond, crying out, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!” In today’s world of Peak TV and franchise films designed to stream six weeks after their theatrical debut, trying to resurrect the greatness—not of movies, but of critics of movies—is a bit like trying to sell a history of Amtrak to passengers on a jetliner, or of Ma Bell to iPhone users.
Opposable Thumbs bills itself as a joint biography of Gene Siskel, the longtime film critic for the Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. The pair became forever conjoined in the public mind because of the series of near-identical film review shows they hosted first on PBS and then in syndication, originally with Tribune Entertainment and later for Buena Vista Television, a division of Disney. However, the book focuses much more heavily on Ebert than Siskel, for reasons both personal and practical. Singer had both a personal and professional relationship with Ebert, whom he deeply admired, while Siskel left very little personal writing behind and his family provided next to nothing that might tell us something about his personal life.
Opposable Thumbs is an enjoyable collection of anecdotes that will put a smile on the face of readers who recall with affection waiting to hear what the bickering critics would say about some hotly anticipated new release. It’s a time capsule from an era before the internet, and especially before social media, when one might still feel like hearing someone’s opinion was vital and exciting rather than exhausting. The 1980s and 1990s were the peak of “infotainment,” when happy talk ruled the airwaves and everyone lied about how wonderful every new product was. As Singer deftly notes, virtually no one other than Siskel and Ebert honestly said on air that a lot of media was utter crap. It was refreshing.
But Opposable Thumbs runs its handful of insights into the ground. The book is organized around chapters that follow a rough chronology, but that chronology occurs mostly at the beginning and end of each chapter. In the middle are an exhausting maelstrom of anecdotes drawn from across the critics’ decades of working together, haphazardly strewn about and sometimes repeated multiple times. The same phrasing, the same points, and the same assertions recur with numbing frequency. The chaotic collection of stories follows no fixed chronology, and their atemporal placement saps any sense of narrative momentum from Opposable Thumbs. (Michelle Howry, the Putnam editor who oversaw the book, should have used a much stronger hand to cull the repetition and shape a narrative from the anecdotes.) There is no actual story, no real drama, no forward momentum, only a constant cycle of two men doing the same thing the same way until one of them died still doing the same thing the same way.
This is not the kind of book in which the author took any great pains to dig up material that the families of the two critics wouldn’t want to see in print, which limits its utility even as a history of Siskel & Ebert. (The closest we get are previously published anecdotes about the critics’ love of big boobs and efforts to rig their schedules to be the one to interview sexy women.) Indeed, Singer is unabashedly a cheerleader for Siskel and Ebert, each of whom he considers (as we hear dozens of times in the book) the “kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.” No, wait… That’s the Manchurian Candidate. Singer considers them the greatest, smartest, most important, most influential, and most famous movie critics who ever lived. You know that because he says it approximately one hundred times. By the time you’ve finished Opposable Thumbs, you’ll be as brainwashed into believing it as Frank Sinatra in Candidate, simply through sheer repetition.
Look, I liked Siskel & Ebert, and its stars were certainly were major celebrities of the late twentieth century (especially on the talk show circuit), but arguing that it was the TV equivalent of an Enlightenment salon or that the two critics were great philosophers is a stretch—especially with so little to back it up. For example, Singer credits Siskel and Ebert with being the first nonfiction pair to bicker on television, to whose influence he attributes all of cable news and sports coverage. But Siskel and Ebert weren’t the first twosome to garner high ratings for fighting and insulting each other on TV. That dishonor is more typically awarded to Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., who scored boffo ratings for their acrimonious but erudite ABC News debates during the 1968 election season, culminating in Buckley calling Vidal “queer” on air. Their shockingly large audience during the political conventions convinced other networks to turn to “debate” instead of reporting over subsequent election cycles, and the outgrowth of the shift was, yes, interest in having a Vidal/Buckley-style oil-and-vinegar pairing to review movies. Singer, a movie critic by trade, seems less fluent in the history of television.
Much of the book’s research is similarly thin—primarily drawn from readily available newspaper and magazine articles, YouTube videos, and interviews with some of the people who worked with the critics that Singer seems to have done little to fact-check. Surely, we needn’t rely on anecdotes to estimate Siskel and Ebert’s salaries. Contracts must survive. As best I can tell, Singer either received no cooperation from PBS or Disney, or else made very little use of any surviving archival materials. Only a few press releases, concept art sketches, or production notes are mentioned, so most of the material in the book is anecdotal, of the “so-and-so says” variety. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the gradual switch to poorly preserved electronic communication that less material survives to document Siskel & Ebert than remains from the 1950s, the period I worked on for my forthcoming biography of James Dean. But if I could view Dean’s weekly pay stubs and even his phone bills from seventy years ago, surely something must survive to document two decades of a major TV show that was still on the air in living memory.
I can see two versions of this book that could have worked brilliantly. Singer might have written it as a carefully modulated comedy, crafting an amusing and humorous story about two bickering mismatched antagonists who became accidental celebrities and learned to love each other. (As Singer notes, many at the time thought of Siskel & Ebert as a nonfiction sitcom--The Odd Couple, but incidentally about movies.) I would have approached it as a tragedy, tracing the rapid rise and long decline of Siskel & Ebert as symptomatic of the fracturing of the media landscape and the collapse of movies as a defining cultural force. Siskel and Ebert styled themselves as Roman emperors with their thumbs up/thumbs down voting, but they were late imperial rulers, presiding over the decline and fall of the movie industry’s cultural cachet.
Writing the book this way requires a sense of tragedy—in the Greek sense, building toward catharsis—that doesn’t sit well with Singer’s love of Siskel and Ebert. So, we have a half-formed book that tries to be a comedy but can’t quite escape the tragedy, and somehow manages to make movies all but irrelevant to a book about movie critics. The anecdotes collected in Opposable Thumbs are often charming, humorous, and exasperating in equal measure, but with little structure to organize or contextualize them, the book becomes less than the sum of its parts. It’s fun to dip into and enjoy the nostalgia value, but I came away knowing little I did not know before and never feeling like I gained any real insight into Siskel, Ebert, or the movies.
Gene Siskel once proposed a test for a movie’s value: “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?” We might just as profitably ask whether a book is more interesting than having lunch with its subjects. Sadly, since neither Gene Siskel nor Roger Ebert is still alive to have lunch, Opposable Thumbs escapes an honest answer to that question.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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