Cinephiles will find much to savor in Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever, a comprehensive, immensely entertaining biography by film critic Matt Singer. In meticulous detail, he probes the lives of the legendary film critics and newspaper rivals, whose opinions became as popular as the movies they reviewed in print–and, later, fervently debated on TV–from the 1970s to the late 1990s.
The release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975 marked a “significant upswing” for the film industry, a ripe time for two newspaper film critics to ascend to international TV fame and clout. A Chicago public television station, intent on hosting a show that would cater to “cinephiles hungry for information about new releases,” paired the two, then both in their 30s: “lanky” Gene Siskel, who wrote film criticism for the Chicago Tribune, and “pudgy” Roger Ebert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer from the Chicago Sun-Times.
Throughout their partnership, Siskel and Ebert remained “mortal enemies. Each considered it an essential aspect of their job to beat the other: to write the best review, to land the biggest interview, to score the best scoops. And they took their jobs very seriously.” Despite this seriousness, David Letterman, who often hosted the duo on his late-night talk show, once remarked that their popular appeal was due to their honest, passionate debates, and how they broke “the stuffy traditions of old-fashioned print film criticism.” The trademark of Siskel and Ebert’s film reviewing was a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating system.
Singer paints a fascinating portrait of the critics, sharing quotes and stories of how their upbringings developed their personalities; their respective roads to journalism and film criticism; and what they each brought to the reviewing table–how their contentious relationship actually increased their viewership. Singer also outlines the many incarnations of their program as it evolved over the years. A large part of the narrative takes a deep dive that sensitively probes their personal lives, including the grave illnesses that eventually led to their deaths.