Playboy: Do you think a lot of people who watch you think, These guys have to be an act; in real life, they’re probably best friends?
Ebert: Anyone who would look at our show and think that should get a brain transplant.
Playboy: You mean you really dislike each other?
Ebert: Sometimes we do really dislike each other.
Siskel: And sometimes we don’t.
Ebert: And it differs from show to show, and sometimes during the show. On most shows, we like each other. Sometimes during a show, something will be said that will make the hairs on the back of the neck curl. And anybody can see when that happens and when it doesn’t happen. It’s not manufactured.
Siskel: I don’t think we would have been on the air as long as we have been if people were convinced it was a fraud of some sort. When people ask me, “What is your relationship like?” the best answer I can give is, it’s what you see. If you see a little bit of dislike, there’s probably a lot going on.
Ebert: In other words, it’s probably more intense.
Playboy: But, in a sense, it is an act. Don’t you force yourselves to be more antagonistic in front of the camera?
Siskel: I’ll tell you honestly that nothing like that is conscious.
Ebert: My nature is to be antagonistic at times, especially with Gene, who brings out the antagonistic in me.
Playboy: What about when you’re not on TV, when you’re just hanging out after the show?
Ebert: We have decided that for the good of the show, it’s better for us to be apart except when we’re doing the show. I don’t ever discuss movies with Gene except on our show.
Siskel: There’s a very practical reason. I was told this at my newspaper a long time ago—“Write it, don’t talk it.” If we were to talk it out, it wouldn’t be as good as it is on the air.
Playboy: Doesn’t everyone have two jobs—his own and criticizing movies?
Siskel: It’s also said about sportswriters. We’re talking about popular culture, and people feel free enough to comment.
Ebert: Everyone who goes to see a movie certainly has an opinion about the movie. It’s interesting: I would never think to question our music critic’s review. But he wouldn’t hesitate to come in and say, “I think you were wrong about the new Woody Allen picture.” And why not, as long as you’re talking about your own reaction? Which is all a critic really does.
Playboy: What qualities should a great critic have?
Siskel: In criticism, there is a certain rigor implied: having principles, holding to them, measuring what you’re saying, trying to be accurate.
Ebert: A critic should be honest in expressing his own feelings, have a good background in his subject matter, have passion and love for the movies, be able to write clearly and entertainingly and have a great deal of stamina.
Playboy: How do you stack up to such criteria, Gene?
Siskel: As a critic, I try very hard to say exactly what I think. And in a medium in which we are well-known for the binary thumbs up and thumbs down, I try to be able to give the mixed review. But most pictures fall into that middle ground, so I wrestle over which way my thumb is going to turn. It’s not flip.
Ebert: I actually respect Gene—he’s an extremely good, highly competent and skilled journalist. He’s always on the phone and he usually knows things, like, Who’s in town? When can I get to them? How can I do this without his finding out?
Playboy: You praise his reporting, but the question was about Gene as a critic.
Ebert: To my way of thinking, he’s lacking in enthusiasm. He’s just a little bit too standoffish and cold about the movies. He thinks the movie is going to be shit, and if it is, that just confirms his suspicions. I go to the movies anticipating a good time. Gene goes fearing a bad time. My glass is half full, his glass is half empty. These are two fundamentally different personalities at work, and they reflect themselves in our reviewing.
Siskel: I’ve heard Roger say that before and I don’t believe it’s true. I want movies to be good. I’d have to be a masochist to want them to be bad. But if you were to stop me any day and say, “Gene, do you expect to see a good movie or a bad movie today?” I would tell you I’m expecting to see a bad movie. The reason is that most of the movies I see are bad. I’m being practical in telling you that most of the things that people create aren’t all that interesting, and that’s too bad. What keeps me going is that I have a strong desire to see something great. And when I see it, it lasts for a long time.
Ebert: One of the big differences between Gene and me is in the area of competence. Gene prides himself on being incompetent when it comes to anything technical. He actually becomes retrograde. No human being alive has had more trouble with computers than Gene Siskel has.
Playboy: Is it as bad as he says?
Siskel: It’s bad. Yes, I have never successfully programed my VCR.
Ebert: He’s never successfully installed his answering machine, either.
Siskel: That’s correct. And I still write with the same little computer that I learned on. In addition to not having a natural facility for it, I think I have a disinterest in it.
Ebert: What frustrates me is that Gene could make life so much easier for himself and save himself so much trouble if he would get himself a Macintosh computer. But he doesn’t want to make the effort to save himself the effort.
Playboy: Why don’t you buy him one?
Ebert: I’m not going to give him no Macintosh as a present!
Siskel: Beautifully elegant sentence.
Ebert: I think there’s a streak of masochism in it. If you look at Gene real carefully, you’ll find that he almost always finds a way to make things harder for himself while saying that it makes it easier. The story of Gene’s life is just a constant trail of computers that lost his file, malfunctioning machines, malfunctioning alarm clocks, late flights, delays, misunderstandings, bad communication.…
Siskel: For some reason, Roger has a need to prove to himself, and maybe to the rest of the world, that he is better than me in every single facet of his life, not only as a film critic but as a human being. He’s like a dog with a bone, and I’m the bone. The person he just described sounds like a totally incompetent boob who would be lucky to be employed by anyone. The contrary facts are that I’ve been employed by the Chicago Tribune for twenty-one years, by WBBM-TV, which he refers to as Channel Two, for sixteen years and I have just been hired for a job with CBS This Morning. I’ve received offers from other people of significant stature recently. And I’ve done the show with Roger for fifteen years. I’m sure everybody has his method, but I think I’m a pretty good worker.
Playboy: All right, Gene, what are Roger’s strengths and weaknesses?
Siskel: Roger is very good on story construction. He can break the story down with the genre. His other strength is that he’s a beautiful writer. He writes first draft and it’s readable, printable. You have to rework my copy; I’m not a natural that way.
A weakness of his is that sometimes he goes with the first draft too easily. His thinking is a little glib, a little sloppy.
Ebert: I produce twice as much work as he does. He thinks of me as lazy because I make it easy for myself. He thinks of himself as a workaholic, but most of his workaholism consists of spinning his wheels. I review every major movie for the Sun-Times, and I have a piece in the newspaper every Sunday. He does little one-paragraph minireviews for the Tribune and he has a piece in about once a month. I’ve written four books. I teach a film class at the University of Chicago. And yet he thinks that he works harder than I do. Somehow, Gene thinks it means you’re working harder if you arrange to work all night long. The question is not how hard you work but how much you produce, and I’m much more productive than he is.
Siskel: Roger’s a furious worker. He’s an elegant worker. But compulsive. I do not view myself as a workaholic but as basically lazy. I don’t have the greatest work habits. I’m not a natural, like him; I’m more of a plugger. I have a set of responsibilities that Roger doesn’t have, and that’s my family. It’s the sustaining pleasure of my life. And if that means that I can’t work as much as he, I’ll take that deal any time.
Playboy: Who’s smarter?
Siskel: I think I’m a little bit more intellectually rigorous and a little bit more circumspect. I’m not glib, as he can be. Which is why, maybe, I’m the better critic. I don’t think I’m any smarter about movies. About oneself? I would say yes, and I don’t say that with bravado or particular pleasure. About life? Probably not appreciably. And I suspect that Roger will say that he is smarter than I am about every one of those things.
Ebert: People ask which one is the intellectual and which one is the populist. My answer is, I’ve got him surrounded. I am both more intellectual and more populist than he is. He is Mr. Middle of the Road.
Siskel: Roger, lighten up. You’ve got a great mind—lean back, enjoy it. I’m no threat to you, big guy. You know, if it were true that I was as incompetent, malfunctioning, as pedestrian as you’re claiming I am, I should be basically shot.
Playboy: Before this turns into a duel, let’s focus for a while on the movies. Why should we care about them?
Siskel: For all kinds of reasons. They have the potential to be one of the most visceral art forms. And the most democratic, not having a pretense around them that pushes people away. I think that everybody can easily get lost in them. Even if you go with your mate, you can have a private experience with a film. I feel that I’m covering the national dream beat.
Ebert: They’re the only art form that records the way people look, move and speak in what approaches lifelike accuracy. Imagine what it would be like if we had movies from the Elizabethan period. Wouldn’t you like to see a British film from the Crimean War? Or an adventure set in India during the Raj? Five hundred years from now, the fact that these movies exist is going to be incredibly interesting to people.
Siskel: Also, everyone that I talk to in all fields—music, TV, writing—they all want to make it in the movies. Writers get all gooey when their work is going to be made into a movie. I learned that from Paul McCartney when I was the first to tell him that Give My Regards to Broad Street was an awful picture. He asked me, “What did you think?” Meeting McCartney was very exciting for me, but I said, “Well, you never lied to us. I can’t lie to you. I thought it was terrible, everything about it.” He was shocked. He got very angry; he almost threw a glass of orange juice in my face. I said, “Is it true that the movies are the biggest thing, even for you?” He said, “Yeah.”
Playboy: Why are we all so star-struck?
Ebert: Robert Mitchum was being hounded by autograph hunters and he said to his wife, “Why do they think I’m such a big deal?” And she answered, “Because they’re smaller than your nostril.” And that’s it. We have this very lifelike, voyeuristic, escapist experience involving these larger-than-life Beautiful People who have been made up, costumed, scripted, directed and photographed to look as attractive and interesting as possible. So, of course, they carry some of that aura around with them in everyday life.
Playboy: Which stars made you feel larger than life by just being with them?
Siskel: On my thirtieth birthday, in 1976, Cary Grant invited me to join him in Palm Springs. He didn’t know it was my birthday. I had done an interview with him for the paper over two days. And it was fabulous. Fabulous. That was probably as much fun as I’ve ever had on an interview. We talked about LSD and other stuff. When it’s really good like that, you believe you’re in the movie with them. He had a favorite Mexican restaurant and he had a few too many margaritas and we went back and he put his arm around me. You feel debonair. You feel witty. Or you hear the piano and Cole Porter is playing. It’s too much. John Wayne also had that effect on me. It has to do in part with what he represented, which was a big movie star when I was a little boy.
Ebert: John Wayne was the first big star I ever interviewed. It was in Fort Benning, Georgia, on the set of The Green Berets. Wayne came walking toward me in full battle gear in the hot, blazing Georgia sun, stuck out his hand and said, “John Wayne”—the two most superfluous words in the English language at that point. He was a very funny guy, a master of the put-on. There was a British journalist there who was trying to get the angle that Wayne was this right-winger who was in favor of the Vietnam war. So he said, “What do you think about Nixon’s conduct of the war?” Wayne looked at him and said, “I think that Nixon has conducted the war with honor, and there’s only one thing better than honor: inner.”
Robert Mitchum has also always seemed bigger than life to me. Once we got lost driving to a movie location in Pennsylvania—Mitchum was smoking pot the whole time—and we went back and forth across the river several times, seeking help from people like snowplow operators—and everybody knew Mitch. I was in an elevator with him once, coming down from his office in L.A. A woman got on and saw who it was, and she couldn’t look at him again. She just stared at his tie. When we got to the ground floor, as the door was opening, Mitchum said to her, “Thunderstruck, or just like the tie?”
Playboy: What about younger stars? Do they have any effect on you?
Ebert: I have also gone on record—now, this is a sore point between us—as having great admiration for Katherine Herrold. And once when we were doing our show and we were reviewing a horror film that she starred in, in which I thought she was very effective, Gene said, “Instead of reviewing her movie, why don’t you ask her to dinner?” Later, I received a letter from Katherine Herrold saying that she had seen the show and was very flattered, and the next time I was in New York, we should have dinner together. I asked Gene if he had sent me this letter as a joke, and he said yes. It was only two years later that I found out he had not sent me the letter. [They laugh]
Siskel: You believed me?
Ebert: Oh, yes, of course I did.
Siskel: I was very clever, I guess.
Ebert: It turns out that Katherine Herrold thinks I’m extremely rude because I never answered her letter. Because Siskel told me that it was from him.
Playboy: Would you have gone out with her?
Siskel: Of course he would have!
Playboy: Who has been the easiest star or film maker to talk with?
Ebert: Woody Allen is one of the easiest for me because he’s so smart. Another one is Mel Brooks, who is always on. If you talk with Mel Brooks for thirty minutes, you have thirty-five minutes of material. As far as conversation and good humor, the best in the business is Michael Caine. He is a true raconteur. He is lots of fun to be around. In terms of positive vibes and good feeling, Dolly Parton actually has the aura that you would associate with a faith healer. If you’re in a room with her, you come out feeling better. I don’t know how she does it, but I just walked out and it was like I’d been strapped to an ozone machine. Oddly enough, Gene has said the same thing.
Siskel: Yeah, she’s a delightful person. Another interview that I liked was Meryl Streep. I asked her on camera in a live-television situation if she could teach me something about acting. I said, I’ll say a line and you critique me. So I said, “I love you, Meryl,” and she said, “All wrong.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because when you said ‘I love you’ to me, you were thinking about how you were saying ‘I love you.’ You were presenting it to me. In a real acting situation, and in real life, if you’re saying ‘I love you’ to someone, you’re not thinking about how you’re saying ‘I love you.’ In that moment, you’re thinking about one thing: Do they love you? That’s where the center of your energy should be.” That is a great instruction about the nature of acting. I’ve told that to other actors and they’ve said you’re not going to get better advice than that—that acting is seeking the truth of the moment.
Ebert: You have to understand that one of Gene’s real strengths as an interviewer is telling people what he thinks. It’s just amazing. When he had Tom Cruise on Channel Two, he told Cruise all about how he, Gene Siskel, felt the first time he met John Wayne. I congratulated him. I said, “Gene, that was a fabulous interview Tom Cruise had with you, in which he got you to talk about your relationship with John Wayne.”
Playboy: Speaking of Cruise—is he the biggest star today?
Siskel: Right now, Tom Cruise is just about as hot as anybody in the movie business. I saw it at the Oscars last year. With fifteen minutes to go, every big star was in, and no one moved because one star hadn’t arrived. Everybody—the fans, the press, everyone—was waiting for Cruise. It was fascinating to me. When I did that TV interview, there were a hundred fifty people standing around, watching him. I hadn’t seen anything like it in a long, long time.
Ebert: Tom Cruise is the biggest star in America today, but we seem to inflate him into the greatest actor in history in order to get him onto the covers of magazines. I am utterly bored by celebrity interviews. Most celebrities are devoid of interest. Who wants to read a [lengthy] interview with Tom Cruise? I don’t—and I write them! Life is too short to want to know about Bruce Willis.
Playboy: So besides yourselves, who has the biggest ego in the business?
Siskel: I’m sure it’s a sixty-way tie.
Ebert: When you say, “Who has the biggest ego,” there’s an implicit criticism. You’re actually asking who’s the biggest asshole. I would say that the biggest ego of anyone I’ve spoken to in the movies belongs to Ingmar Bergman, but I would want that to be heard as praise. He has a very highly developed sense of self, of who he is, what he thinks and what he cares about. He’s one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. Woody Allen has an extremely well-developed and healthy ego. That does not mean he’s conceited; it doesn’t mean he’s insufferable. It just means that he takes himself seriously, and he should.
In terms of dynamic energy and infectious enthusiasm, very few people are the match of Martin Scorsese. I gave him his first print review. It was his first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? I said, “In ten years, he’ll be the American Fellini.” Well, of course, that was wrong, because there’s nothing similar between Scorsese and Fellini. But he called me up and said, “Geez, do you think it’s gonna take that long?”
Playboy: The critic John Simon says, “Without criticism, the artist receives no serious answer.” Does an artist need a serious answer?
Ebert: Some do, some don’t. I still believe that the critic primarily writes for other people interested in the same art form. The proof of that is that much of the great criticism has been written about people who are dead. Samuel Johnson was certainly not hoping to help Shakespeare when he did his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. But what he was trying to do was bring Shakespeare’s plays to his contemporaries and to reinterpret him. That’s what a critic can do.
Siskel: I think that it can be healthy.
Playboy: Simon often takes offense at what an actor looks like. He has been known to criticize Streisand because of her nose. Is that healthy criticism?
Siskel: I’m one of his few defenders. Here’s why: These actors use their bodies. They’ll always tell you that’s their instrument. OK. If that instrument is distracting to you, I think you do have an obligation to report it.
Playboy: But Barbra Streisand can’t do anything about her nose.
Siskel: We all know that they can do anything they want these days. You can cut down a nose.
Playboy: You’d recommend an actress permanently alter her face so certain critics might like her better?
Siskel: I believe that somebody can be cast wrong physically. That’s really the nut of what Simon’s saying, and that’s what I subscribe to: that somebody can be physically wrong for a part.
Ebert: His contention is that if we are being asked to pay money to look at someone, we have the right to say why we don’t want to look at him. A certain amount of tact is necessary. I don’t think I would mention Streisand’s nose in print any more than I would mention it to her in person. I generally feel that what makes people interesting is the spirit that shines through.
Playboy:Spy magazine recently said that you were the two most powerful movie critics in the country, and that Siskel was the powerhouse of the two of you. Did that bother you, Roger?
Ebert: That was all tongue in cheek; their criteria for judgment were completely silly and goofy—which everyone will agree to. In other words, the article is completely meaningless. Besides, Gene wanted to win. I don’t care, really, except I do care, because he always manages to manipulate these guys. He gets some writer from Spy magazine and talks to him until the guy will do anything to make him stop talking. Gene’s telephone conversations are famous for being endless. Anybody who’s engaged in negotiations with him finally tells him things like, “I’ll do anything you want if you’ll just stop calling me.” It must be said that Gene lobbied furiously to win and that I would have placed first if it hadn’t been for Gene’s telephone calls to that publication.
Siskel: Now I think I’ve figured out what the trigger may have been for Roger’s wild overstatements of everything about me. What’s been bothering him is that Spy magazine thing.
Ebert: What Gene can’t figure out is that, despite all of his efforts, I always seem to wind up on top. I’m smarter, funnier, I’m a better writer, I’m a better talker, I’m better on television. It’s just astonishing. For all of his efforts. Now, I’m sure that Gene would be happy to tell you that he’s smarter, that he’s a better critic, that he’s better on television.
Playboy: Gene, how much power do you think you wield?
Siskel: Because of the Spy magazine thing and because people are now bringing it up to me, I’m a little bit more aware of it than I have been in the past. I live in Chicago, I work in Chicago. I don’t travel that much, so I’m not in the media centers of the country where I would hear more about my power. So I haven’t been all that aware of it. I guess that we can sell a considerable number of tickets and possibly prevent as many people from going to see a film. When I go out to L.A., I get treated pretty well by these people, and that’s why I should get home quick. I don’t need any more power, and I don’t need any more money. I don’t need any more fame. And I know who’s really big, and I’m not.
Playboy: You two have been parodied in movies such as Hollywood Shuffle, Summer School and Back to the Beach. What’s it like being the brunt of the joke?
Ebert: Well, the most amazing parody, the one that had Gene and myself picking our jaws up off the floor, was Danny Thomas and Bob Hope doing us on one of the Bob Hope specials. I mean, when you grow up with Bob Hope, it’s like if we were to look up at Mount Rushmore and there were two more guys up there, and it was Siskel and Ebert. Bob Hope and Danny Thomas! It was just—
Ebert: It was stupendous! It was amazing. So that was a high point. Another landmark for both of us was being satirized in Mad magazine, because we grew up with it. You know you’ve arrived when Mad magazine does a parody of you.
Playboy: How much of a landmark was it to appear on The Tonight Show?
Ebert: I would have to be on The Tonight Show a great many times before I would get over the shock of being interviewed by Johnny Carson.
Siskel: When we’re behind the curtain for one of these things, particularly with the Carson show, we will often say we should be watching the show. When I saw Johnny walk through the door—it was a jaw drop for me.
Ebert: Before I saw Johnny, I saw Ed McMahon and Doc Severinson and my knees were already jelly. Then the band started to play. I was thinking, Get me outa here! We were so frightened. There’s even a picture of us holding on to each other. I was saying, “Gene, we’re a couple of Midwestern boys who belong back in the Midwest.” There was no way that we belonged on the Johnny Carson show. We were way out of our depth.
Siskel: I did all of the hick things in connection with that show. I took a picture sitting in Johnny’s chair after the show was over. I took a picture with my daughter sitting in Johnny’s chair and my wife and I as the guests. I took home a cue card for one of Carson’s jokes.
Playboy: Since everything between you is so overly analyzed, how are you feeling right now about each other?
Ebert: It’s just maddening sometimes to work with Gene. And I think that he probably is kind of tired of working with me on occasion, too.
Siskel: I’ve felt estranged from Roger in the past month or two. On our scale of getting along or not getting along, I feel we’ve been drifting apart a bit.
Playboy: Like it or not, you two are linked like Siamese twins. What are your gut feelings about being known as “Siskbert”?
Ebert: I’m very proud of the things that I do as Roger Ebert. I really, really, really resent references that seem to link us together as two halves of one opinion. And I am at pains to suggest that the Siskel & Ebert program is something that I do once a week with Gene, and I come to the show as a complete entity and interact with him for half an hour. But the two of us are not in any way, shape or form a critical team.
The other thing that pisses me off is that a lot of people seem to think I’m Siskel, and Siskel claims that nobody ever thinks that he’s Ebert. I think he’s lying; I think he does it to push my buttons. I think he must occasionally be called Ebert by somebody. People call me Siskel at least half of the time. It’s the deal with the Devil: “The good news is, I’m going to make you famous. The bad news is, nobody will know who you are.”
Siskel: It doesn’t bother me if somebody calls me Ebert. What’s fascinating to me is that that would mean something to him. That a perfect stranger didn’t know his name? Or got confused? These are not issues to be annoyed over. I feel I’m secure in my own identity as a critic and I don’t try to reach a middle position with Roger at any time. At the same time, I recognize that the power I’ve been given to act independently and have a resonance, and to be sought out for opinion, is due not entirely—and not even halfly, if you will—to the fact that we work together.
Playboy: But together, you’re much more powerful. Do you think that we would be sitting here talking with you if you were not a team?
Siskel: No, you wouldn’t be. I think I have a real good fix on what the situation is. It doesn’t in any way diminish me if people view me as part of a program. It’s enhanced me. And every week, I separate myself from him; I have no problem with that.
Ebert: One of the things that get me is that we’re usually quoted as “Two thumbs up!” I liked it better before we had the thumbs. Then, at least, you were allowed to have an opinion, like “I enjoyed this movie” or “a hilarious film.” It’s almost as if the two of us are little jack-in-the-boxes and all we can say is “Two thumbs up!” “Two thumbs up!—Siskel and Ebert.”
Playboy: Do you pay much attention to your reviews being quoted in ads?
Ebert: I don’t care whether I’m quoted in ads. I don’t read them to see if I’m quoted.
Siskel: I don’t have to ever see my name in an ad again. It’s embarrassing. When I saw the size of type that they used in Die Hard 2, I thought, Gulp!
Playboy: How often do you feel ambivalent about giving a film a thumbs up or a thumbs down?
Ebert: We have plenty of reviews that are somewhere around the middle. You just have to jump one way or the other because of this idiotic business of being able to vote only thumbs up or thumbs down. I’d like to give a sideways thumb occasionally.
Playboy: Who are the critics who have most influenced you?
Siskel: I’m of the age that Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris had a big influence on my life. Kael with her enthusiasm and attention to detail and finding the relevant detail to illustrate the point. And Sarris for his Americanization of the auteur theory and giving these film directors their due as artists and as authors. Of the people who are working now, they’re the ones who have to get the lion’s share of the credit.
Ebert: I’ve always been a big fan of Pauline Kael’s. I like Stanley Kaufman, Manny Farber. I don’t read other critics for their opinions; I read them for their style and for what they see in a movie. I don’t read Gene’s reviews, because I don’t want to know anything about his opinion of a movie before we tape the show. I don’t want to know what he’s said before.
Playboy: Have studios or directors ever given you scripts to read?
Ebert: I won’t read them. I have a form letter. A film critic is the last predator in the food chain. He should review the movie after it’s made; he shouldn’t be rewriting it before it’s been sold.
Playboy: Roger, you spent your time farther down the food chain when you wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for director Russ Meyer in 1969. And you’ve been very critical of Twentieth Century Fox for the way it handled the film, right?
Ebert: Fox just wants to dissociate itself from that film. I mean, any studio that would make The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and doesn’t want to acknowledge Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is badly confused. Ford Fairlane is a failed attempt to deal with some of the same material in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which is a camp rock-and-roll horror exploitation musical. Still, it’s the movie that won’t die. It could be as successful as The Rocky Horror Picture Show if Fox got behind it and showed it at midnight.
Playboy: How much did you get paid?
Ebert: Fifteen thousand dollars. Pretty good in 1969. I’ve written about five or six screenplays for Russ. Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens was the only other one produced. He’s got a screenplay that he’s trying to sell right now that I wrote in 1976 called Up the Valley of the Beyond. Only now there’s a conflict issue involved. The way I handled it was to never review any other Russ Meyer movie after Vixens. As I became a national film critic, I got out of the screenplay business altogether. I don’t believe that a film critic has any business having his screenplays on the desks at the studios.
Playboy: Well, Gene, here’s your chance: Want to review Roger’s movie?
Siskel: I haven’t seen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in twenty years. I thought it was gratuitously violent. And it didn’t make me laugh. Somebody sticks a gun in somebody’s mouth and it kind of linked sex and violence in a not particularly healthy way. I thought it was distasteful. That was my reaction to it. I gave it a negative review.
Ebert: I think it was pretty sensational. Even today it plays like gangbusters.
Playboy: Dwight MacDonald decided to stop being a film critic when he felt that “as the years go by, one has already reviewed, under another title, almost every new film one sees.” Has either of you gotten close to that point yet?
Ebert: I’ve never been bored with the job, but I’ve always felt there has to be a finite length of time that I want to make it my business to process every major commercial movie in the world.
Siskel: I’m still as enthusiastic about movies as I was twenty-one years ago. The good ones will let you run through bad ones for a long time. When I saw a picture like Do the Right Thing, I was still going to see it a year later. That picture had about five months of active life in my head. Die Hard 2 was another. I sat there enthralled.
Playboy: You often bring up Do the Right Thing, Gene. What is it about that film that so captivated you?
Siskel: I particularly was impressed with it in the year that Driving Miss Daisy, a film allegedly about racial issues, was the most celebrated film of the year. I wanted to say, No, no, no, no; look over here and you’ll see a beautifully made film that’s much more real. New York magazine ran a cover story called “Race: the Issue.” It was referring to the mayoral campaigns of David Dinkins and Ed Koch. But I believe that statement—“Race is the issue”—applies to all of America at all times. Race is really the issue, and we will be judged on how we handle the racial issue in this country. To me, Do the Right Thing is the picture that best reflects and illuminates the racial conflict in America. Better than any other picture I’ve seen.
Playboy: Let’s talk about Siskel & Ebert. What has kept it fresh over the years?
Ebert: The fact that we have not gotten bored with doing it and that we are still highly attuned to each other’s opinions. If Gene disagrees with me, I take it personally, and vice versa. We are still very competitive. We know how to push each other’s buttons in such a way that there is a real feeling of risk when we’re taping. For both of us.
Siskel: We’re in a profession where a lot of people don’t confront competition. Journalists will crap on each other in bars, in restaurants, to their colleagues—but they won’t face their competition in any real way. We do, and you’ve got to learn from that.
Playboy: Did you know each other before you started doing a show together?
Ebert: We had had no meaningful conversation on any subject.
Siskel: We had just sort of glancingly observed each other. The fact is that there was only one guy who could really hurt me professionally other than myself, and that was Roger, because he could beat me on a story. Or write a better review. Roger is the guy I feared the most.
Playboy: Have you ever critiqued your show?
Ebert: Today, if I look back on tapes of the early shows, I find it startling that Gene and I agreed to work with a trained dog. And I find it even more startling that we later agreed to substitute a trained skunk. I feel that something fundamental inside of me has changed in such a way that I could never again work on TV with a dog or a skunk. And even at the time, Gene and I used to ask each other, “Do you think Pauline Kael would appear on television with a trained animal?”
Siskel: I’ve asked Warren Beatty and Steven Spielberg what they would do to improve our show. Both of them said that they would spend more time on a movie. I think we should do that. I would like to see a show devoted to one film. We did it about ten years ago, and we ought to do it again. I think we could spend a little more time on detailed analysis. Let the argument go on a little longer, not make it so snappy. Let it get uncomfortable.
Ebert: Sometimes we’re criticized for not dealing in high-level, in-depth film criticism. And that’s true; we are not a high-level, in-depth film-criticism show. This is two people talking about the movies. But we have a lot of younger viewers who watch the show, and it seems to me that what we’re telling them every week is that there are standards and that it is your job to make up your own mind about what you think of a movie. It’s OK to have an opinion; it’s OK to disagree with someone.
Playboy: Do you think most people are watching you because of your opinions or because of the potential for watching two people argue with each other on television?
Ebert: We don’t argue that much.
Siskel: And we don’t disagree to be disagreeable. We probably agree seventy percent of the time.
Ebert: I’ll tell you where I think people get that idea: There’s hardly any disagreement or any real conversation on television. In the early days of television, there were open-ended talk shows with people like David Susskind, Irv Kupcinet and others on which people who disagreed with each other came on the air and fought. Then, for a long time, that disappeared and there was all this blandness. Now you have some confrontational stuff on TV, especially on some of the cable stations. But still, basically, it’s very rare for anyone on a polite show to express disagreement.
Playboy: Is a movie on TV still a movie?
Siskel: No, you’re seeing television when you watch a movie on TV, not a movie. The thing that is so wonderful about film and made such a big impression on me as a kid is the scale. You know all the theories: You enter the dreamlike state; the light comes from behind your head; you surrender to the image; you’re pulled around like in a dream. It’s just the opposite of home video, where you’re, in effect, the projectionist. You run the movie, you control the lights.
Ebert: The bigger the screen, the better the sound, the better the experience.
Siskel: The shoe-box theaters really hurt the movies. Younger audiences see movies as enlarged TV, so they won’t demand that the movies be that much different from TV. They won’t know the difference and it will all fall into the main slop bucket of entertainment.
Playboy: Roger, you won a Pulitzer Prize. What did that mean to you?
Ebert: It relieved me a great deal, because two years earlier, Ron Powers, the Sun-Times TV critic, won the Pulitzer. So I spent twenty-four months in suicidal depression before I won it myself. I don’t bring up my Pulitzer on the show very often, because I’m sure it’s constantly on Gene’s mind.
Playboy: Gene, are you envious?
Siskel: Of course. I would have loved to win one. My editors entered me a number of times and I didn’t win. At the time Roger won his, we were in such a binary competition that it hurt.
Playboy: We know that your competition is intense. How do you handle it?
Siskel: Once, we were doing Saturday Night Live for the first time. We were both pretty scared. It was live television. The rehearsal had gone badly. We had never worked off cue cards. We were blowing it left and right. It was just humiliating. Then it came time to cut lines. We got into a situation where Roger was counting lines and saying, “You have more lines than I do.” I began belching nervously. We were hostile and felt we were both going to go down in flames. We did the show, and we did OK.
Ebert: The key thing you have to remember about Gene is that in situations involving fear, his defense mechanism involves anger. Before live audiences, he becomes extremely rigid and abrupt. We were in a room with a typewriter, and Gene grew concerned that the cuts would diminish his role. I started counting words to prove to him that that was not the case. He went ballistic. So by the time we went on the air, we were both complete basket cases.
Siskel: What about your behavior during this? You described my behavior, but what about your own?
Ebert: I was the one with the typewriter who was writing the script. Gene was stalking around dictating. I just couldn’t reason with him. It happened most recently the last time we were on the Arsenio Hall Show. Gene was told by some functionary what we were supposed to do. Later, the executive producer gave us different instructions. When I tried to inform Gene, he said that he already knew exactly what he was supposed to do. Then, when I tried to say “No, Gene, it’s been changed,” he said, “Very well, do whatever you want,” and he clammed up. That is what he often does. There’s enormous tension before we go out, which leaves me uptight, and once we get on the air, he’s relaxed. My way to deal with this is to have no contact with him whatsoever until we go out to do such a show. I absolutely don’t want to see him or talk to him, because then I won’t get any of the bad vibes.
Playboy: What was the all-time low in your relationship for each of you?
Siskel: Roger taught me a rummy game on an airplane once. It involved a discard pile and a meld pile. As soon as he taught me the game, I began beating him regularly. At one point, he thought that I had discarded something when I had just conveniently put something down on the little plastic tables they have on airplanes. It became such a big deal with him. He starts raising his voice: “I’m never playing with you again!” and he throws the table up. I was in shock. The stakes we were playing for were pennies. That was an all-time low, because it was so trivial.
Ebert: I’ll give you one of my examples: We were once on the Letterman show. Letterman said, “We’ll give you a limousine and we’ll bring you from the airport to the studio. We’ll tape the show and we’ll take you back to the airport.” This is fine with me. Gene is immediately thinking, Maybe I could go to this art gallery while I’m here. So he goes upstairs at Letterman and says, “Can you arrange another limousine?” They say yes. We go back downstairs. The original limousine is still waiting. The second limousine has not arrived. Gene gets into it and tells the driver to take him to the art gallery. I’m standing in the middle of the street, trying to block the limousine and saying, “Look, I didn’t change any plans. I want to go to the airport. You’re the guy who changed your plans, wait for your limousine.” Gene’s response to that was to roll up the electric windows and tell the guy to drive off. The second limousine never arrived and I took a taxi to the airport.
Playboy: Did you confront Gene about it?
Ebert: Oh, God, I’m still talking about it now, and that was eight years ago! Oh, I talk to him. He will not respond. He just goes into the stone-faced routine. Gene’s response to criticism is silence and deafness. He has often said that when we get mad, I explode and he implodes. The madder I am, the louder I get; the madder he is, the quieter he gets.
Siskel: [Laughs] Jesus Christ! My recollection is that I had a limited amount of time to get where I was going. I had been told to take that limousine, and they were ordering another limousine for Roger. There was time for him to make it to the airport. I think that’s a fact he left out. I felt under duress, because he was getting angry. When he gets angry, it can be very unpleasant. It’s easier to cave in when he throws a tantrum. I guess that day I felt I’d had enough of being bullied. I just didn’t feel like caving in. I wasn’t gleeful when I did it. I felt bad doing it. Roger’s had people give in to him all his life. He’s a tyrant all the time, with everybody. I’m one of the few people in this world who can stand up to him, and that must frustrate him terribly. Terribly. The story is interesting in that you’re dealing with someone who always got his way, as opposed to me, who grew up in a big family and didn’t always get his way. I think I’m the sibling he never had. The best definition I’ve seen of our relationship is that it’s a sibling rivalry and we both think we’re the smarter older brother.
Ebert: You’ve talked with both of us for hours. Which of us do you think has a greater need to always be right?
Playboy: To be diplomatic about this, we would say that perhaps Gene wants to be right more but that you think you are right more. You don’t have the need to be.
Ebert: I have more innate confidence in the fact that I am right. I just assume I’m right, partially out of conviction and partially as a pose, because it drives Gene up the wall.
Playboy: After all these years, Roger, have you changed to outmaneuver Gene?
Ebert: Yeah. I think I was a sweeter and more trusting guy earlier on. I always feel that Gene is thinking of the angle, so I have to think of the angle, too. And I always feel like I lose. He always gets the angle on me. He gets the limousine.
Playboy: But you got the Pulitzer Prize.
Ebert: Yeah. That’s my only consolation.
Playboy: And he gets Spy magazine.
Ebert: He manipulated Spy magazine.
Playboy: Before we start that again, let’s go back to your childhoods and see if we can get to the bottom of this bickering.
Ebert: Maybe in Gene’s life, he had too many people telling him when to shut up. A lot of his behavior may come out of military school.
Playboy: Let’s go back even further, Gene. You were probably too young to have many memories of your father, but do you remember being told of your mother’s death?
Siskel: I was told, apparently, while I was watching a baseball game—and I denied it. It didn’t register. I thought she was still alive for a significant time after she was dead. I couldn’t handle it, obviously. I used to pray for her to get better, after she was dead.
Playboy: Since this interview is mainly concentrating on the relationship between you and Roger and your relationship to the movies, let’s focus on how the movies influenced your childhood.
Siskel: I would walk eight blocks to the theater every Saturday with my friends. A big theater. A Mediterranean-themed palace with lighthouses and twinkling stars on the ceiling. Red velvet all over the joint. One picture that made an impression on me was A Star Is Born with Judy Garland. I remember the colors were richer than I had seen before. I remember being taken to a drive-in to see A Streetcar Named Desire. I remember being in the back seat and hearing people on the screen yell and scream. I grew up in a very happy home and didn’t hear that. The movies, there was something potent there. It was adult. That’s what movies meant to me, plus one other thing: Admission was a quarter and I was given two quarters so I could buy my refreshments. That was the first time in my life I was really turned loose. I could choose my food. I wasn’t served by my parents, the selection was mine.
The movie with the strongest emotional pull of my youth—and it has to do with my psychological history—was Dumbo. The separation from the mother was terrifying to me. And also Dumbo’s flying. It was like my whole ego was riding right on his trunk when he had to fly and believe in that mouse. I felt that I had big ears and I think most people feel that they have big ears stashed somewhere in their life.
Ebert: With me, my life centered on the Princess Theater on Main Street in Urbana. For nine cents, you got a double feature, color cartoons, a newsreel, a serial, the coming attractions, the advertisements and, twice a year, Dan Dan the Yo-Yo Man came and had a yo-yo contest. You could win a Schwinn bicycle. I wanted to be a yo-yo professional.
Playboy: Your father also died when you were young, didn’t he?
Ebert: He died of lung cancer in 1960, when I was a freshman in college. He had been an electrician at the University of Illinois and my mother, who died three years ago, was a bookkeeper. Two weeks before my father died, I won the Associated Press sportswriting contest for the state of Illinois. Because he knew that I won that, that award is really more important to me than the Pulitzer Prize.
Playboy: How different are movies today from when you were kids?
Ebert: When I went to movies as a teenager, we went to see what adults did. Now adults go to the movies to see what teenagers do. People over the age of twenty-one hardly ever make love in the movies anymore. They sit around and tell the kids they shouldn’t be doing it. It’s amazing. And today, the best American directors are not trying to make great movies, they’re trying to make successful movies. Today, you couldn’t get 2001 made; you couldn’t get Taxi Driver made—it doesn’t have enough violence, and it has the wrong kind of violence. It’s not escapist violence, it’s introspective, meaningful violence. Even Raging Bull—it’s the best film of the Eighties, but you couldn’t get it made today. It didn’t make much money and it never gets good ratings on TV.
Playboy: Gene, you get personally involved with the movies, by collecting movie memorabilia, don’t you?
Siskel: I’ve got the white suit Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever. I loved that picture and have seen it ten times.
Playboy: What did it cost you at auction?
Siskel: Two thousand dollars. In terms of what I was prepared to pay, it was a bargain. Now it’s probably worth twenty times that. Sylvester Stallone says it’s the most famous suit in the world. I’ve never put it on, but I don’t have to worry about its being destroyed, it’s polyester. It will outlive the plastic bag it’s in. I’m also the proud owner of the boom box, the baseball bat and the pizza-delivery shirt from Do the Right Thing. And I have an early script of Scorsese’s Mean Streets. That was an important film for me, just as the Nicholson pictures from Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens through The Last Detail were. But now, when you ask people who starred in those, nobody says Jack Nicholson. The dominant image of Nicholson for many people is the Joker and the Laker games. Smilin’ Jack. Here is a man who, to his everlasting credit, gave us a portrayal of a modern American man that was unique. He made these pictures that really show an alienated modern guy in an exciting way. And the kids don’t know it.
Playboy: Gene, you’ve told us about some of your favorite movies. Roger, what are yours?
Ebert: The Third Man, La Dolce Vita, Notorious, Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and Gates of Heaven, a documentary about a pet cemetery.
Playboy: And who are your three favorite actors and actresses?
Siskel: I hate that shit. God, do I hate that stuff!
Playboy: All right, Gene, we’ll note that you won’t play. How about you, Roger?
Ebert: Robert Mitchum, because he embodies the soul of film noir. Robert De Niro, because he takes more chances than anybody else. Jack Nicholson, because he has a gift for making the audience into accomplices.
Ingrid Bergman, because of the ethereal quality of her persona. Marilyn Monroe, because there was never, ever anybody else like her; because she was able to convey carnality through innocence in a way that still remains a complete mystery. Meryl Streep, just because she tries so many kinds of things, so she never does the same thing twice.
Playboy: What genre of film is the most review-proof?
Siskel: It may be the comedy. It is very, very hard to argue someone out of a laugh, or into one.
Ebert: The sex film.
Siskel: That, too.
Ebert: If people think it will turn them on, they don’t care what anybody says about it. In fact, most sex films are never reviewed.
Playboy: Are porno films healthy?
Siskel: I know that they can be degrading, but I think that they possibly can have a therapeutic value, as well. I once interviewed a sex therapist who said that porno films were healthy for the reason that they show people who have never seen the anatomy, the organs, up close. Supposedly, a common fear is that the vagina has teeth. And someone could say, “No, it doesn’t. Look!”
Playboy: Are orgasms usually portrayed from the male or the female point of view in the movies?
Siskel: I did a story on the visual grammar of sex scenes in American movies, and the orgasm is always from the point of view of the woman. Richard Gere is one of the few actors who has consistently dared to be photographed orgasmic, out of control. I applaud him. I want films to open up in the bedroom. It’s an area that obviously a lot of people are conflicted about.
Playboy: Pornography and sex in the movies lead to the problems with ratings. For a long time, you two lobbied for a new rating so that movies such as Henry & June and Wild at Heart wouldn’t be stigmatized by an X rating. What took the Motion Picture Association of America so long to adopt the NC-17?
Siskel: The real test is whether studios will make NC-17 films, whether theater chains will play them and whether the media will advertise them. If not, then NC-17 will be as restrictive as the X.
Playboy: Along with your crusade against the rating system, you’re concerned with the change in value systems in film schools, aren’t you?
Ebert: I feel that the film schools are more commercially oriented than ever. They used to have the values of the liberal arts schools; now they are more allied with business schools in terms of their values: success, money, achievement and power rather than vision, imagination, truth and social change.
Playboy:Your value systems sometimes go awry when it comes to tearing each other down. For instance, Gene says you can’t wear a brown sweater on camera because you look like a mud slide.
Ebert: That’s one of Gene’s feeble attempts at humor. Gene also says that there’s a dollar bonus for any cameraman who can not take a close-up of me. One of the little-known things about Gene is that from the height of an astronaut circling the earth, the only objects visible are the Great Wall of China and his forehead. He has the only receding hairline so spacious that it has applied for its own Zip Code.
Playboy: You guys enjoy taking shots at each other, but can we cut to the bottom line?
Ebert: In the context of an interview like this, I’m almost being prompted to attack Gene, but actually, I do admire him and like him a great deal more than you might think. As it is, I see more of Gene than anybody else in the world, except for my girlfriend.
Siskel: He knows me better than anybody outside of my family and, in certain areas, better than anybody else in the world. Whatever else I may think of Roger, I do think highly of him and of his mind. He can be a very good person and an exceedingly good friend, though.…
Playboy: There. See, we knew it.
Siskel: Sometimes I feel I am trying cases every week with Roger as Hamilton Burger and me as Perry Mason.
Ebert: He would choose Mason, because that’s probably the extent of his interest in fictional detectives. Gene has always wanted to be a trial lawyer and has really felt he was wasted on film criticism. I would not have even thought of choosing Perry Mason. Now, what does that mean in terms of his rigorous thinking?
Siskel: What it means is—
Playboy: Enough, gentlemen. Enough.