ROGER EBERT and Gene Siskel are the two best-known movie critics in the country, and, now that Archie and Edith have left us, probably the country's most celebrated squabblers as well. They splooshed into the mainstream with "Sneak Previews" on PBS and last year left that show to start their own commercially syndicated series of film reviews, "At the Movies."
Of course the American dream now is to be a star first and whatever else you are second, but though people ask them for autographs and they are recognized on the street--and though they've been parodied on "SCTV Comedy Network" and were offered the chance to play themselves in the current comedy hit "Strange Brew" (they declined)--Ebert, 40, and Siskel, 37, insist they're still a pair of unspoiled balcony-haunters who spend hour upon hour in the dark with their passion, the movies. Next month they begin their second season of "At the Movies"; in Washington, the program moves from WDCA-TV (Channel 20) to WJLA-TV (Channel 7), although a station spokesman says it's not known yet exactly where the show will be slotted.
The wee little pointy-heads who run such TV stations initially elected to put "At the Movies" on past midnight, when hardly anyone could see it. Now, the spokesman says, a likelier, if not wildly more attractive, spot is 3:30 Sunday afternoons.
And there Roger-the-fat-one and Gene-the-balding-one will be, holding forth in a style that has become increasingly entertaining. No matter how nutty their opinions may be (Roger loved "Four Friends," that egregious howler about a flock of drips stumbling through the '60s; Siskel thinks the so-so "Slap Shot" was "a fabulous movie, a marvelous film"), it is sheerest understatement to say they work well together on television.
It is also sheerest understatement to say they are cheered and relieved to be out of public television.
"Everything that you think about commercial TV--the playing to the lowest common denominator, and so on--we experienced on occasion in public TV, and we have yet to experience in commercial syndication," says Siskel, who leans forward when he talks and whose right hand is always gesturing as if it were pulling great thoughts out of the air. He is the film critic of the Chicago Tribune.
"By PBS, we mean Channel 11 in Chicago, which is the only station we ever dealt with it produces "Sneak Previews" ," says Ebert, who compulsively folds and unfolds his napkin into little squares at lunch and is film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "We never met anyone from PBS; we never talked with anyone from PBS."
And this despite the fact that with Ebert and Siskel at the helm, "Sneak Previews" logged the best ratings of any weekly half-hour show in PBS history.
"We'll tell you some interesting stories--maybe," says Ebert. "We got things like, I wasn't allowed to use the word 'boudoir.' They said, 'Nobody knows it.' It was a French boudoir comedy we were reviewing! In January of 1982, we had an idea for a theme show on homosexuals in the movies, because for the first time major studios were making big-budget pictures with recognizable stars who played homosexuals. It took us 3 1/2 months to get that show on the air. Their argument was 'Guys, nobody wants to hear about that stuff, it's just unpleasant.' "
Tribune Entertainment Co., which produces and syndicates "At the Movies," has placed the show on 122 stations for the new season, and a producer there expects the number to go up to 132 soon. Siskel and Ebert were on at least 100 more stations with PBS, but most of those were UHF stations with small audiences. Siskel and Ebert say ratings show they are reaching 11 million viewers a week now, compared to about 4 million on PBS, and Ebert says "fewer compromises" have to be made today than when they played PBS.
When the team quit "Sneak Previews," it looked like a case of the galloping greeds. They didn't like their puny PBS salaries and became six-figure Sammies when the Tribune Co. took over. But the two critics say that it isn't that simple.
"Well, we felt we were going to be viewed as the venal guys who said 'We're leaving PBS to get rich,' " Siskel says. But he claims WTTW planned to take the show away from PBS stations and go into the commercial syndication business with it itself. William J. McCarter, president and general manager of WTTW, says from Chicago that the charge isn't true, and sounds mystified by the rancor of his two former Sunshine Boys.
"I'm just kind of amazed at all of this," says McCarter. "I'm surprised at the hostility. I think this is an attempt to elicit an argument where there is none."
Ebert says of McCarter, "The only time we were ever in his office was when we walked in to quit." He also says he and Siskel took a big risk leaving the sure-thing of the PBS cocoon and venturing out into the competitive TV syndication business, where many a fortune has not been won, many another fortune lost: "We gambled everything. We could have been off the air watching 'Sneak Previews' and feeling pretty silly."
"We were scared to death," says Siskel.
"We were scared ----less," says Ebert.
"I'm gonna hear that opening jingle and my name ain't gonna be on that candy box!" exclaims Siskel, referring to the opening of the program and the way the credits pop up.
Whatever one may think of Siskel and Ebert, they have their qualities. The Midwesternness of the show, and of their points of view, is refreshing, especially when contrasted with the self-righteous bombast of the New York film reviewing school. On television, they have little competition. In city after city, movies are reviewed on local stations by knuckleheaded rubes rendered helpless with laughter at their own lame jokes. Gene Shalit, of the NBC "Today" show, has been nothing more than a hired fool for years.
And then there are the two New York yokels who replaced Siskel and Ebert on PBS: Jeffrey Lyons, to whom the notion of insight or analysis is more foreign than Jupiter, and Neal Gabler, who talks down to viewers as if they were all 3 years old and looks into the camera the way Dracula regards a vacant neck. They are both pitiful. Ebert and Siskel are asked to comment on their successors and the big talent hunt that produced them.
"Let me put it this way," Ebert begins.
"I think I'm going to like this," Siskel says, grinning.
"First of all, we were not consulted. Although we had our candidates, if anybody had asked us. I would have put a woman on, for example. When we were hired, there was no thought of 'casting' and there was no thought of 'chemistry.' We were hired because we were the two movie critics at the two daily papers in Chicago. We had no auditions."
"This is so true about the way people try to force things and screw it up," says Siskel. "It's a classic."
"I mean," says Ebert playfully, "they hired Siskel, so you knew they weren't looking for anything--"
"Roger had NO television experience," Siskel interrupts. "Virtually none!" Siskel had been doing reviews since 1974 on the CBS-owned station in Chicago, WBBM-TV; he was hired by Van Gordon Sauter, now the president of CBS News, then the news director of the station.
"In the last analysis," says Ebert, "all the auditions were overruled, and the producer who had created 'Sneak Previews' was overruled, by Mr. McCarter. So the auditions meant nothing. Well, one of the two guys did audition. But one of the demoralizing things at WTTW is that people sifted through 350 applications and 45 tapes and did two rounds of 11 auditions each and were eventually overruled by a man who said, 'No, we're going to take the other guy.' And they had to get two people who they have to fly in from New York every week! There must have been people outside New York who could do that show well."
"All right, all right," says Siskel, "and I'll give you something else, Rodge. There might have been two people inside New York who could have done that show well, too."
"Well, we don't envy them," says Ebert of the new duo. "We were able to develop in obscurity; they had to come in and take over. What I'm surprised at is that they didn't do anything at all to change the format of the show."
"The best moments in our show are when the camera disappears, and it happens quite often with us, when we start talking to each other, and it's colleagues talking," says Siskel. "And I think those guys Lyons and Gabler are heavily rehearsed."
"They have no spontaneous crosstalk provided for," says Ebert. "It's all read. Knowing something of the producer they're working for, I have the feeling we are hearing the fourth or fifth takes of those jokes of theirs."
"I say it's rehearsed," says Siskel, "and I'll also say--here's what I honestly think: I don't find them interesting as individuals or as a couple. I find us mildly interesting as individuals and more than mildly interesting as a couple. And I believe that, I'm not embarrassed to say it, and I don't care what happens to me if I do say it."
And now, on to Aroma the Educated Skunk!
Siskel and Ebert ended each "Sneak Previews" with a "Dog of the Week," each critic's pick for most resounding clinker, heralded by the arrival in the show's little prop balcony of Spot the Wonder Dog. But Spot left the show under mysterious circumstances (the trades were abuzz with speculation). We wanted the real story.
"You want the story of Spot, I'll tell you the story of Spot," says Ebert. "Spot was fired by PBS because of his salary demands. He was getting $40 a week."
"No, I think he'd gotten higher--65 a show," says Siskel. "And there was a fee negotiated, apparently, for extra time. If we had a retake or a lunch break or a camera screwed up, the time sequence might change and the dog would have to stay longer. And I think what happened was they wouldn't pay Bob Hoffmann, his owner, the overtime for his dog. You can laugh about it, but a deal's a deal, and they tried to back off."
Pooch Ankles Chi Crix Skein.
"So Spot left," says Ebert. "Unceremoniously. And they hired this new dog, Sparky. Sparky died of kidney failure. Sparky would leave the set during the show. Once, in the middle of the Dog-of-the-Week segment, Sparky hurled himself over the balcony! Now it's only a three-foot drop, but from the camera's point of view, you figure it's got to be 25 feet to the floor, so it looked like Sparky was killing himself! Sparky would p--- on the set, he would leave, he would bark. He would make all kinds of noises. Spot was no trouble at all. He came in, did his job, and he'd leave. He wouldn't have recognized us on the street."
"That was a totally arrogant little dog," says Siskel admiringly. "He was a star. His trainer called him The Farrah Fawcett of Dogs."
"That was when they were negotiating," says Ebert. "The trainer said, 'You don't understand, this is the Farrah Fawcett of Dogs.' The producer said, 'In that case, we're looking more for the Marjorie Main of dogs.' "
When they went to commercial TV, the critics thought of trying to get Spot to make a comeback. But "he wasn't getting any younger," Ebert recalls, and then hatched the notion of hiring another of trainer Hoffman's pets, Aroma the Educated Skunk, who became a regular on the show's renamed Stinker-of-the-Week segment. Except that this season he'll be an irregular, says Siskel, appearing only from time to time.
What effect this will have on the ratings, of course, remains to be seen.
Ebert and Siskel both say they agree on movies more than they disagree, but it's the disagreements that keep the show bubbling. This summer, Ebert gushed over "Zelig" and Siskel thought it was not very good. Siskel liked "Octopussy"; Ebert didn't. Ebert thought the aliens in the basement-budget sci-fi film "Wavelength" were kind of cute but Siskel thought the whole thing was dreadful.
It's really fur-flying time, though, when Ebert brings up two movies Siskel liked last spring and winter: "Table for Five" and "Six Weeks," a pair of tearjerkers that got the heave-ho from the public as well as most critics. Ebert thinks Siskel was susceptible because he was charmed by the kids in the film and that he was starting to have heavy paternal thoughts himself. And lo, it was subsequently revealed that Siskel and wife Marlene are expecting their first child Sept. 28.
Ebert and Siskel argue so loudly over the two films that other people in the restaurant look over at the table. But they should feel honored. Having Ebert and Siskel spat in person is like having Pavarotti sing outside your window, or, well, almost.
" 'Six Weeks' is easily the worst movie of last year, 'Table for Five' is easily the worst movie of this year," says Ebert. "Those movies are absolutely awful."
"Number one," says Siskel, "I'm sorry for you that you didn't have the joyful experience that I had at those films."
"Ha ha. You had a joyful experience at 'Six Weeks'?"
"Okay now, look, wait a second. . . . "
"I'm sorry," Ebert huffs. "Go right ahead! You hardly ever get a chance to talk."
"One, I will make a statement between the two films. I liked 'Table for Five' more than 'Six Weeks.' Roger is completely opposed to every element of 'Six Weeks,' apparently."
"Much of it was in focus," scowls Ebert.
"Now wait a minute! I want to ask you a question about two elements of 'Six Weeks' and every element of 'Table for Five.' Is there a single performance you can fault in 'Table for Five'?"
"Jon Voight," says Ebert. Voight was the star of the film.
"The performance, or the character as written--which, Rodge?"
"The performance was quite distracting. Performance and character are very closely related here."
"Not to me! Not to me! I'm able to keep them apart!"
"That is an ad hominem argument if I ever heard one!"
"Now, you know you use the word 'ad hominem' whenever you're wrong," Siskel says.
"Once Gene said to me, 'If you like the woman so much, why don't you ask her out?' " Ebert confides.
"That's my favorite for you, big fella," Siskel says, laughing. "When you compared Katherine Herrold's performance in 'The Sender' to Ingrid Bergman in 'Gaslight.' And I said, 'Roger, just ask her out for a date.' " Siskel smiles gleefully.
"That was an idiotic statement, really brilliant," growls Ebert. "I'll tell you about Jon Voight . . ."
"Deal with the performance, not the film! I know what you're going to do; you're going to deal with the plot structure, and you're going to deal--"
"Let me talk! You asked me a question, I'd like to answer!"
"All right, but answer on the grounds I asked it."
"I will, I will!" He regains his composure. "Voight's performance is so bizarrely mannered that it is impossible for us to accept the character as a plausible person who should have happen to him what the plot argues should happen to him."
"There you go--plot!" gloats Siskel. "I knew you wouldn't go to performance!"
"But you're making some kind of bizarre distinction here."
"No, it's the words that are written on the page and the way they are performed. And I asked you about the way they are performed."
"Okay," says Ebert, gathering up his strength and enunciating very carefully. "He performed them in a way that made it almost painful for me to watch him. I'm looking at this guy and thinking, 'He needs help.' "
"The character needs help?"
"What is this, rhetoric class? You asked me about the performance, not the character; I told you about the performance, now you accuse me of talking about the character!"
"You were talking about the character!"
"I'm talking about the performance!"
And on they go, Alphonsing and Gastoning like this for many more minutes. Earlier, before the fight, Siskel briefly waxes philosophic. "This is how I feel about movies," he says. "I'm still a newspaper man at heart. I feel that I'm on the national dream beat. Because I think that movies, particularly successful ones or patterns that float up, are the coalesced vapors of the consciousness of a society."
"Whooooooo!" whistles Ebert. He rolls his eyes sarcastically. Siskel laughs. Ebert laughs. These guys not only have their act together; they are eminently capable of taking it on the road, and it travels pretty well.