The Balcony Has Closed

Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

The balcony has closed.

That was the popular phrase used by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as they would sign off their movie review program for the week. Fans were assured they would be back the following week to talk about the newest films that got released. Now fans will be hearing that phrase for the final time. Okay, the parting line would change through the years, using phrases like “Save us the aisle seat” and “We’ll see you at the movies”, but I still prefer the balcony line.

Siskel and Ebert first teamed on the PBS show Sneak Previews in 1975. There they would create a format that has been imitated countless time. Every week the two newspaper film critics from Chicago would take to their balcony studio and critique the latest crop of films for viewers.

Offering personal insight and opinions they would help steer the viewer to make the right choice and help avoid them making a regrettable mistake when they went up to the ticket counter. The most memorable episodes would consist of a lack of disbelief, as one critic would recommend a film when the other completely disagreed. A debate of the films worth and the critics’ sanity was questioned. These exchanges were sometimes more entertaining to watch then the films they were reviewing.

This black and white rating system isn’t the best way to critique a film. There’s not a lot of grey area to explore with it and a truly great classic film would garner the same rating as an average film that you saw while you in just a good mood. But it was a sellable and memorable way to market the show and the guys. Soon getting a ‘Two Thumbs Up” from Gene and Roger was a badge of honor and movie studios would proudly promote it on their advertisements for films.

Besides their dueling discussions on the latest films the duo would also take time to examine other aspects in films, such as emerging technologies and trends. This new thing called the VCR, laser disc players, the attempted comeback of 3-D in the early eighties and the threat of colorizing old black and white films were highlighted and discussed on the show.

Sneak Previews – Gene and Rogers first teaming

As the show evolved and gained popularity it became syndicated, got produced by different companies and had a couple of title changes. The one thing that remained consistent was Siskel and Ebert, whose discussions and critiques of the current films made them one of the few places on television (especially when cable was still in its infancy) a movie fan could count on for some serious thoughts about the latest films.

While the majority of entertainment shows, that were also beginning to gain popularity, consisted mostly of shallow fluff pieces with actor interviews that were just trying to sell their latest project (this might have been the start of the entertainment gossip we are overrun with today), Siskel and Ebert brushed all that aside and examined what was on screen and – loved it or hated it they would tell you. They would decree this by their trademark ‘Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down’ rating.

Current film controversies were featured. With the arrival of the 1984 Santa Claus mass murdering horror film Silent Night, Deadly Night they discussed how the film was being marketed and their own personal thoughts on the studios, the filmmakers and the popular trend of these ‘slasher movies’.

They would occasionally offer up their own advice to popular actors who they felt were slumming it in their latest projects and suggested it was time for a change in their ‘X-Ray Segment’. Burt Reynolds had been dealt a consistent chorus line of ‘Thumbs Downs’ for his films and vocal critiques of his performances and film selections for many years, until Siskel and Ebert offered up their own advice for the actor on to help the track his career seemed to be on.

Reynolds was said not to have been very appreciative of it and it didn’t endear the critics to him. He didn’t end up taking their advice.

Thumbs up and thumbs down

Special episodes, such as ‘If We Picked The Winners’ would be dedicated to the Academy Award nominees and who they thought were the most deserving recipients. Their years best and worst films, video suggestions, discussions about classic films re-releases and anniversaries, specials on the James Bond and Star Wars franchises and occasional interviews with actors and filmmakers that focused on their work and influences.

At the time of the release of Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, Ebert hosted a panel discussion on the show with a round table of critics to discuss it and Kubrick’s career. This was a far stretch from the usual vapid reports by the majority of entertainment shows that focused mainly on stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and the actual film would get only a passing mention.

Siskel and Ebert would become the most well known film critics to the general audience – the Bert and Ernie of film criticism. Their bickering over disagreements became as much of a trademark as ‘Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down’. They always seemed to have a good sense of humor about themselves and would grin and go along with the jokes about their weight or lack of hair during television appearances, such as on the Tonight Show, David Letterman, Howard Stern and countless others.

Gene and Roger on David Letterman

But at the heart of all this, these guys genuinely loved movies. They were disappointed and angry when they had to sit through a stinker. The appearance of their mascot ‘Aroma the Educated Skunk’, who would come out before a review of a film, would be a clear sign of what they thought of the film before they even said anything. When the guys got vocal about a really bad film they were forced to sit through they didn’t hold back. Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!, North, Frozen Assets and She’s Out of Control come to mind.

They were just as vocal about their enthusiasm for a film. If they loved it, they would let you know. Goodfellas, Babe, Dark City and Fargo were all pretty much praised by either one or both of them.

And of course the memorable arguments that are still entertaining to watch. There were a lot of unforgettable disagreements through the years – Full Metal Jacket, Blue Velvet, The Silence of the Lambs, Apocalypse Now and Cop and a Half.

Siskel and Ebert did their last show together in 1999 and soon after Gene passed away. The following show was devoted as a tribute to Gene and was a look back at him and their twenty-four year history together.

The show continued with a series of rotating hosts alongside Ebert, until in 2000 Richard Roeper became the permanent co-host. An illness caused Ebert to take a leave of absence and again a series of rotating co-hosts sat next to Roeper. Eventually Ebert and Roeper left the show for good.

Siskel and Ebert making an animated
appearance on The Critic

In 2008 Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz stepped into the hosting spots for a year, but were soon replaced with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott, who I felt were a vast improvement – although they’re no Roger and Gene, they’re still pretty good and some of the additional features they added to the program and web exclusives have kept me tuning in. The ‘Thumbs’ rating had been replaced with a ‘See It/Skip It/Rent it’ rating, since the ‘thumbs up/down was copyrighted to Roger and Gene.

On March 25, 2010 ABC-Television announced the shows cancellation.

A show for film fans who are interested in hearing actual content, opinions, discussion and examination on the art of film is not an easy thing to find on television and the ‘Sneak Previews/At The Movies’ series was one of the few places that had it. Of course I didn’t always agree with the critics, but at least there was platform for actual film criticism on the air and I quickly became a big fan of them and their show.

Fortunately the Internet has come along and there are plenty of amateur movie critics (yours truly included) with a camera and passion for film who are more than willing to share their opinions and thoughts on films. Some of them are actually very good too.

Ebert has announced plans for a new movie review program. Because of his illness and condition he will play a limited role in it, but the use of ‘Thumbs Up/Down is expected to return. Broadcasting on the web will probably play a pretty significant role.

Gene and Roger deep in film discusssion

There are a few months left of the show Gene and Roger started all those years ago. In the meantime while counting down to the final show and Ebert’s new one, I would suggest fans to check out the shows website and peruse the archives of past Siskel and Ebert reviews while they still can. Who knows how long they will be able to?

Unfortunately some of the earlier Sneak Preview reviews from the 70’s/early 80’s were never saved. Occasionally you’ll find a Siskel and Ebert fan had somehow taped one during its initial broadcast, saved it after all these years and has posted it on youtube for fans to watch. (If you’re ever able to track down a copy of their Red Sonja or The Philadelphia Experiment reviews – check them out they’re really funny and two of my favorites!)

It’s interesting to see some of Gene and Roger’s thoughts on what was once a brand new film, that now you can find in the bargain bin or see late night on a local television station. Unlike most entertainment news that we get, it’s not a temporary gossip fix and it can still be relevant, informative and entertaining years later.

The final show aired on August 14, 2010.


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