Monday, August 16, 2010
Thumbs Up For A Gentle Man
It was with mixed emotions that I watched the final program of "At The Movies," which ended its television run on Sunday after 45 years.
I couldn't help thinking, "I wish Gene Siskel were still here."
Gene was one of the guys who founded the show, and he was my friend. (We were in the same class in college.)
In 1975 he was the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, and a producer at the local PBS station named Thea Flaum got the brilliant idea of pairing him with his rival critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert. For a half hour each week, they'd argue about the movies and give each film a thumbs up or thumbs down.
The show was an instant hit, and no wonder: Gene and Roger were the original odd couple.
I'm hopelessly biased, but I think Gene usually got the better of the argument. He championed films that appealed to the mind and heart, and occasionally other parts of the body.
The most honest review I've ever heard anyone give is the thumb's up he gave to the soft-core French film, "Emmanuelle."
Instead of tiptoeing around the truth by talking about the cinematography or lighting, he looked into the camera, shrugged his shoulders and said sheepishly, "What can I say? It turned me on."
For me, the most memorable review is the one he gave to another French film, "Rififi," which depicts a jewel robbery, moment by moment. He said the reason it's so exciting is that we love to see the behind-the-scenes details of how people in exotic professions do their jobs. And what profession could be more exotic than jewel robber?
It's a lesson I've applied to everything I write. Whenever I interview someone, I always ask them to describe the details of how they do what they do. Thank you, Gene.
I'd run into him whenever he and Roger came into town on a promotional tour, and what most impressed me is that he never thought of himself as The Famous Gene Siskel.
He treated everyone, down to the go-fer who brought him a cup of coffee, with complete respect. He was a true gentleman, and you don't find that very often, especially among celebrities.
Gene died from a brain tumor in 1999, and Roger carried on with a succession of co-hosts until he, too, got sick and had to retire in 2008. For the last few years the show has been hosted by a series of critics who are very good, but not in Gene's league.
At our 25th college reunion, Gene passed on some precious wisdom he received from the master of his residential college, novelist John Hersey, and I'm passing it on to you:
"1. Don't do anything for money. In America if you do anything well, money will follow - if you want it."
"2. Have more than one career. Don't be trapped into working for one company or in one profession for your entire life."
"3. Don't view life as a test on which you can get a perfect score. Life is problems. Therefore, don't be unhappy when you're unhappy. Strive for and appreciate moments of serenity, a much more reasonable goal."
P.S. The last movie Gene reviewed was a romantic comedy called "Simply Irresistible." He gave it a thumbs down.