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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Roger Ebert's Mistake

In the profession of movie reviewing, the giant has been Roger Ebert. However, he wrote the wrongest review of all time when he panned Dirty Dancing in a review published on August 21, 1987, the day the movie opened in the theaters.

Robert Ebert, whose review of "Dirty Dancing"
was the wrongest move review ever written.
The Wikipedia article about his includes the following passages about his career before 1987.
Ebert began his career as a film critic [at age 25] in 1967, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. That same year, he met film critic Pauline Kael for the first time at the New York Film Festival. After he sent her some of his columns, she told him they were "the best film criticism being done in American newspapers today". ....

Ebert co-wrote the screenplay for the 1970 Russ Meyer film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and sometimes joked about being responsible for the film, which was poorly received on its release yet has become a cult classic. Ebert and Meyer also made Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, Up!, and other films, and were involved in the ill-fated Sex Pistols movie Who Killed Bambi? ...

Starting in 1968, Ebert worked for the University of Chicago as a guest lecturer, teaching a night class on film at the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies.

In 1975, the same year Ebert received the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, he and Gene Siskel began co-hosting a weekly film review television show, Sneak Previews, which was locally produced by the Chicago public broadcasting station WTTW. The series was later picked up for nationwide syndication on PBS. The duo became famous for their "thumbs up/thumbs down" review summaries. Siskel and Ebert trademarked the phrase "Two Thumbs Up".

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel
In 1982, they moved from PBS to launch a similar syndicated commercial television show named At The Movies With Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. In 1986, they again moved the show to new ownership, creating Siskel and Ebert and The Movies through Buena Vista Television, part of the Walt Disney Company.
Ebert's review of Dirty Dancing included the following passages:
... The movie makes some kind of a half-hearted attempt to rip off West Side Story by making the girl Jewish and the boy Italian - or Irish, I forget.

It doesn't much matter, since the movie itself never, ever uses the word "Jewish" or says out loud what obviously is the main point of the plot: the family's opposition to a Gentile boyfriend of low social status. I guess people who care about such things are supposed to be able to read between the lines, and the great unwashed masses of American moviegoers are condemned to think the old man doesn't like Swayze's dirty dancing.

This might have been a decent movie if it had allowed itself to be about anything. The performances are good. Swayze is a great dancer, and Grey, who is appealing, also is a great dancer. But the filmmakers rely so heavily on cliches, on stock characters in old situations, that it's as if they never really had any confidence in their performers.

This movie could have been about the subjects it pussyfoots around so coyly. It could have found a big scene a little more original than the heroine stepping in for the injured star. It could have made the obnoxious owner's son less of a one-dimensional s.o.b. But the movie plays like one long, sad, compromise; it places packaging ahead of ambition. Where did I get that idea? I dunno. Maybe from the title.
I myself would summarize Ebert as arguing that Dirty Dancing is a cliched variation of two types of previous stories:

1) Stories in which a young couple's love is hindered by ethnic taboos or parental conflicts. West Side Story, Romeo and Juliette and Fiddler on the Roof are examples of such stories.

2) Stories in which an ambitious understudy gets an opportunity to play the main role in a theater performance when the star cannot perform because of an illness, injury or other misfortune. This was the story in, for example, several Busby Berkley movies during the 1930s and in the popular Broadway play 42nd Street.

The following video shows the televised review on Siskel and Ebert and the Movies.


One reason why Ebert disliked Dirty Dancing was that he opposed abortion, although he did not express that argument publicly in his criticism of the movie. In 2013 he wrote an article titled How I Am a Roman Catholic, in which he described his position about abortion as follows.
I support freedom of choice. My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child. A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.
If his pan of Dirty Dancing was motivated significantly by his disapproval of abortion -- and it certainly was -- then he should have said so. I respect people who oppose abortion and therefore denounce Dirty Dancing.


As I summarized above, Ebert criticized Dirty Dancing as a cliched variation of stories about 1) a young couple's hindered love and 2) an ambitious understudy. Dirty Dancing does indeed include some elements of those two kinds of stories, but the movie told a story that was essentially unique. In my opinion, the Dirty Dancing story was this:
Some itinerant dancers and an ordinary family interact, and all are affected positively.
Ebert's mistake was that he as a professional music critic reflexively compared Dirty Dancing to West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet, Fiddler on the Roof,and 42nd Street and so forth. He dismissed Dirty Dancing as a half-hearted rip-off, heavily based on cliches and stock characters.

Ordinary people, who had watched far fewer movies and had watched them casually and unsystematically, did not compare Dirty Dancing to other movies as Ebert did. Ordinary people saw the story as new and innovative.

The dancer characters were uneducated, wandering, struggling artists. The family characters were educated, settled, established professionals. The two groups of characters interact and learn to appreciate each other.

That story, which the movie audiences perceived, was not the story of Romeo and Juliette or 42nd Street. Ebert's framing of the story was wrong, and therefore his review has been crushed to smithereens by the movie's enormous, lasting, world-wide popularity.


However, Ebert wrote and spoke so informatively and educationally about movies for so many years that we all should forgive him that one mistake. The following photograph shows a statue of Roger Ebert that was placed in Champaign, Illinois.

A statue of Robert Ebert in Champaign, Illinois
A Time magazine article published in April 2014 included the following passages:
Before the film critic Roger Ebert died last April [2013] at age 70, he did more than just review movies. One of his many triumphs was the founding of "Ebertfest," an annual film festival for overlooked movies that takes place in Champaign, Ill.

This year, the festival has continued to go on without him — but his presence is felt in more than just spirit. On April 24 the second day of the festival's run, a life-size bronze sculpture of the critic giving a thumbs-up sign was unveiled in front of the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, the site of the festival. Speaking to the Associated Press, Ebert's widow Chaz described the piece, by artist Rick Harney, as interactive art, since there's room for fans to sit down next to him.

The sculpture's title is "C-U at the movies," after his signature sign-off — and, for Ebert devotees, there's now one particular theater where they'll be able to see him once more.

My previous blog article about Ebert's review includes some other, worthwhile arguments that I do not repeat here.

1 comment:

  1. "One reason why Ebert disliked Dirty Dancing was that he opposed abortion, although he did not express that argument publicly in his criticism of the movie" This is fascinating. While I greatly admire Roger Ebert, I find it unfortunate (to say the least) that he would allow his politics to colour his review of a film and then fail to provide full disclosure. Also, for him to lambast the film for relying on cliques and then turn around and argue that it was too subtle is some areas seems to be contradictory to me.

    Thank you for sharing this.