A screenwriter who went by the pseudonyms of R. Hyde and Reinhold Timme died recently in Chicago. Others knew the man as Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert's death got us thinking about interesting facts involving movie critics. So let's give this one 10 stars — or 10 thumbs up, if you're all thumbs.
1 Pauline Kael — the hugely influential, acerbic critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991 (except for a short stint about 1980 when she tried to work in the film industry) — got her start in San Francisco in 1953 when a magazine editor overheard her and a friend debating Charlie Chaplin's film "Limelight" at a coffeehouse and asked them each to write a review. Only Kael turned one in. She called the movie "Slimelight."
2 David Manning was born in 2000 and made an impact as a film reviewer almost immediately. That's because Manning was invented by a Sony Pictures Entertainment marketer. The fake critic praised Rob Schneider's "The Animal" as "another winner" but was soon exposed — prompting an exec associated with the film, Joe Roth, to tell Newsweek: "If he doesn't exist, he should at least have given us a better quote." Sony later settled a lawsuit, allowing filmgoers to file $5-per-ticket claims if Manning's praise of "The Animal" or other films had misled them into attending.
3 Tribune film critic Michael Phillips told the website Rotten Tomatoes that a formative moviegoing experience occurred at age 9 when he watched "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," expecting to like it but instead hating it. "... Being sent into a low-grade funk by that alleged 'comedy to end all comedies' probably had something to do with me becoming a critic. I wanted to figure out why it didn't click, at least for me."
4 Reviewers write a fine line in telling enough without revealing too much. Rarely was that more crucial than for "The Crying Game." The 1992 film's plot turned on the fact that a female character was really a man, a twist so important that the film's producers pleaded with the media and moviegoers to keep it a secret. That didn't sway the Tribune's Gene Siskel, who gave it away on a special Oscars edition of "Siskel and Ebert." The revelation infuriated Ebert, who called the move "arrogant" and said Siskel should have discussed it beforehand. The flip side was The New York Times' Janet Maslin, who managed with the artful avoidance of pronouns to keep the secret throughout a 1,350-word profile of the androgynously named actor Jaye Davidson.
5 For decades, Tribune movie reviewers wrote under a fake byline as Mae Tinee (Get it? "Matinee"). Among the writers using the byline were Frances Peck Kerner, Anna Nangle and Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote the play that was adapted into the award-winning musical "Chicago."
6 Everyone loved "Gone With the Wind" when it came out, right? Wrong. African-American critic Melvin B. Tolson, writing in the Washington Tribune, objected to the film's depiction of well-treated slaves and its sympathy toward slaveholders. He said the takeaway for white moviegoers was that "Dixie was a heaven on Earth until the damned Yankees and carpetbaggers came."
7 When we think about Carl Sandburg, we might recall his poem describing Chicago as the "city of the big shoulders," or his six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. It's less likely that Sandburg's review of the silent film "Nanook of the North" will come to mind. But, in fact, Sandburg wrote more than 2,000 articles about the movies for the Chicago Daily News, according to author Arnie Bernstein.
8 Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan repeatedly lambasted 1997's "Titanic," calling it "a witless counterfeit of Hollywood's Golden Age." Director James Cameron was furious and demanded Turan's firing, arguing that the film's popularity showed that the critic was out of touch. "Forget about Clinton — how do we impeach Kenneth Turan?" Cameron wrote.
9 The porn film "Deep Throat," which was caught up in 1970s censorship battles, was reviewed by upper-crust critics who ordinarily wouldn't write about such fare. Ellen Willis of the New York Review of Books called it "about as erotic as a tonsillectomy." But Arthur Knight of the Saturday Review testified at a New York obscenity trial that the film deserved praise "for expanding the audience's sexual horizons and producing healthier attitudes towards sex." The judge didn't buy it, leading to a movie theater marquee in Times Square reading: "Judge Cuts Throat, World Mourns."
10 Critics may be at their best reviewing bad films. Ebert in 2000: "'Battlefield Earth' is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time." Phillips on "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" in 2009: "It's not just the sound of crickets you hear watching this movie. It's the sound of dead crickets." But perhaps the most withering review was also the shortest. Leonard Maltin's complete review of the 1948 film "Isn't It Romantic?": "No."
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor for the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the newspaper's weekend editor.
SOURCES: "American Movie Critics," edited by Phillip Lopate; "Your Movie Sucks" by Roger Ebert; "Life Itself: A Memoir" by Roger Ebert; "'The Movies Are': Carl Sandburg's Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928," edited by Arnie Bernstein; "A History of X" by Luke Ford; "Carnal Knowledge" by John Baxter; Newsweek; rottentomatoes.com; Los Angeles Times; The New York Times; Chicago Tribune.