Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever

  • By Matt Singer
  • G.P. Putnam’s Sons
  • 352 pp.

A thorough, repetitive ode to the erstwhile irascible duo.

Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever

This nifty, well-researched dual biography is as much about the two guys in the title as it is about American pop culture. How else to justify the brassy promotional puffery of the book’s subtitle?

But blame the front-office suits for that. Author Matt Singer foreswears such woozy overreach in the body of Opposable Thumbs, producing an engaging, readable work. No dawdler on the thoroughness scale, he digs deep to chronicle the professional lives and aesthetics of the newspaper-reviewers-turned-TV-critics who built their brand on their onscreen interplay and “Two thumbs up!” system of quickly assessing films’ merit.

As Singer points out, the TV-land faithful devotedly paid mind to these boys’ pronouncements, even though the pair often disagreed and didn’t much cotton to each other, regularly telegraphing their mutual aversion via snarky verbal duets. Still, interpersonal fireworks or not, the show must go on…which it did, with increasing momentum (and under various names) for 23 years, first on a local Chicago station, then on PBS, and ultimately in syndicated transmission under the Disney imprimatur. This latter arrangement, as reported by Variety in 1981, made Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert “the highest-paid dispensers of film reviews in the world.” Little wonder they reputedly exchanged a good-luck secret handshake before each show.

Although influential, they hardly “changed movies forever,” as the book’s school-of-Munchausen subtitle claims. Even so, they did impact how commercial films were promoted. As they neared the peak of their celebrity, Siskel and Ebert became populist eminences on the talk-show circuit, with Siskel playing the straight man, a cranky Abbott to Ebert’s feisty Costello.

As regular guests of Oprah, Carson, Leno, and Letterman, the pair engaged in semi-scripted wrangles, and on “The Tonight Show,” they occasionally grabbed center stage in comic sketches that traded on their reputation for hair-trigger bicker-fests. Even “Saturday Night Live” came to call, booking the team for three appearances during the 1981-1983 seasons. Here’s Singer’s take on the pair’s prickly onscreen relations:

“Their fights on the set of The Tonight Show and The Late Show paled in comparison to their behind-the-scenes arguments — many of which were exacerbated by their talk show appearances and their endless competitiveness. They kept meticulous track of who received what perks (like their respective lines of dialogue on Saturday Night Live) so that they could ensure they were being doled out equally.”

Of course, this cantankerous equilibrium supercharged the Siskel-Ebert brand. Their audiences saw them as no-nonsense truth-tellers. When they disagreed, as entertaining as it was, it wasn’t just shtick, it was a mark of frankness and sincerity that helped fuel their success. They challenged each other on late-night network air, where they contradicted their hosts as well as their fellow guests, the stars flogging their latest releases. They took on the movie factories, too, even dissing the Disney machine, their show’s owner in its later years.

Singer skillfully takes his material in hand and creates a compelling narrative throughout. He’s an able craftsman in media journalism, and he doesn’t skirt his subjects’ less-than-appealing traits; he could scarcely dodge these foibles while getting at the truth of his story. Still, the steady drip-drip-drip about the men’s neurotic interactions and reflexive wrangling, the throughline in Opposable Thumbs, eventually became dispiriting and tiresome for this reader.

Gene Siskel died suddenly in 1999, at the age of 53, and the show started to sputter notwithstanding Ebert’s continuing presence with a series of new partners in the opposite chair. Roger Ebert himself passed in 2013, at 70. And despite the author’s (or his publisher’s) protestations to the contrary, their lasting influence seems to have faded with them. We now have Rotten Tomatoes and YouTube to fill the gap, such as it is. And for all their high-tech production innovations, movies themselves haven’t really changed.

Bob Duffy, a regular contributor to the Independent, is a retired ad exec/brand consultant.

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