CLOSE
YouTube
YouTube

13 Facts About Siskel and Ebert and the Movies

YouTube
YouTube

While 1986 was a big year for films—with a varied slate of movies including Top Gun, Platoon, Back to School, Aliens, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off dominating the box office—it was an even bigger year for film critics. On September 13, 1986, Siskel and Ebert and the Movies made its television debut, and turned arguing about films into a national pastime.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST TIME GENE SISKEL AND ROGER EBERT DISAGREED ABOUT MOVIES ON TELEVISION.

Throughout its lifespan, what eventually became known as At the Movies adopted (and discarded) a variety of titles. Though the iconic film review series began its run on September 13, 1986 as Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, it wasn’t the first time Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had collaborated on a television program. From 1975 to 1982, the two critics had co-hosted the PBS series Sneak Previews. And yes, they often disagreed about the quality of the movies they reviewed.

2. A COIN TOSS DETERMINED WHOSE NAME WOULD BE LISTED FIRST IN THE TITLE.

According to the Archive of American Television, Siskel and Ebert determined whose name would come first in the title of their new show in the fairest, most democratic way they knew how: a coin toss.

3. THEY USED TO HAVE A DOG SIDEKICK, THEN A SKUNK.

YouTube

For all their intelligent opinions about movies, Siskel and Ebert weren’t above using a fun little gimmick here and there—going all the way back to Sneak Previews. First there was Spot the Wonder Dog, who helped the duo declare the worst movie of the week (a.k.a. the “dog”). When asked about the canine cineaste, Ebert told The Washington Post, "You want the story of Spot, I'll tell you the story of Spot. Spot was fired by PBS because of his salary demands. He was getting $40 a week." There were other dogs, and then Aroma the skunk, who introduced the critics’ Stinker-of-the-Week.

4. THEY TRADEMARKED THE PHRASE “TWO THUMBS UP.”

Siskel and Ebert popularized the concept of a thumbs up/thumbs down rating system, with “two thumbs up” being the holy grail for any filmmaker lucky enough to have his or her film reviewed by the duo. To maintain the sanctity of that glowing accolade, Siskel and Ebert trademarked the phrase. "We made television history, and established the trademarked catch-phrase 'Two thumbs up,'” Ebert once explained.

5. DISNEY CLAIMED THAT EBERT FORCED THEM TO PULL THOSE THUMBS DURING ONE HEATED CONTRACT NEGOTIATION.

In 2007, Disney-ABC Domestic Television issued a statement claiming that Ebert had forced them to pull the thumbs from the show (which, by that time, was At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper) in the midst of a contract negotiation. In response, Ebert claimed that he "had made it clear the Thumbs could remain during good-faith negotiations," despite what the press release said. He went on to explain that, "They made a first offer on Friday which I considered offensively low. I responded with a counteroffer. They did not reply to this, and on Monday ordered the Thumbs removed from the show. This is not something I expected after an association of over 22 years.” When Ebert eventually ended his association with the show, the thumbs went with him.

6. THEIR FREQUENT DISAGREEMENTS WERE THE SHOW’S MAIN DRAW.

Any fan of Siskel and Ebert and the Movies can tell you that some of its best moments came when the critics were in serious disagreement about a movie. And while the critics themselves knew that their frequent differences of opinion were one of the show’s main draws, their relationship was based on fierce mutual respect.

“Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks,” Ebert wrote on the 10th anniversary of his longtime partner’s passing. “Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency. When we were in a group together, we were always intensely aware of one another. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes shared opinions, sometimes hostility. But we were aware. If something happened that we both thought was funny but weren't supposed to, God help us if one caught the other's eye. We almost always thought the same things were funny. That may be the best sign of intellectual communion.”

7. THEY FOUGHT HARDER FOR EACH OTHER THAN THEY DID AGAINST EACH OTHER.

Though Ebert acknowledged that he and Siskel often disagreed on movies, when it came to real life, they always had each other’s backs. “In my darkest and moodiest hours, when all my competitiveness and resentment and indignation were at a roiling boil, I never considered [going our separate ways],” Ebert wrote. “I know Gene never did either. We were linked in a bond beyond all disputing. 'You may be an a**hole,' Gene would say, 'but you're my a**hole.' If we were fighting—get out of the room. But if we were teamed up against a common target, we were fatal. When we were on his show, Howard Stern never knew what hit him. He picked on one of us, and we were both at his throat."

8. IN ADDITION TO REVIEWING MOVIES, THEY TALKED ABOUT THE STATE OF MOVIEMAKING.

Though reviews were their main business, Siskel and Ebert worked hard to develop an appreciation for the art of cinema itself in their viewers. In an editorial for Film Comment in 1990, Ebert reminded readers of the many themed issues he and Siskel had produced where they delved into issues facing moviemakers of the day, including the colorization of films, the virtues of letterboxing, the art of black-and-white cinematography, and why the MPAA was the same as censorship.

"Siskel & Ebert was the first, and often the only, television show of any kind to deal with many of these subjects,” Ebert wrote. “It would be fair to say that most mainstream Americans who have formed an opinion on colorization and letterboxing were inspired to do so because of our program. (Video retailers say the Siskel & Ebert program on letterboxing caused a noticeable swing in the opinions of their customers on the subject.)"

9. THEY FILMED AN EPISODE IN BLACK AND WHITE.

To illustrate that aforementioned point about black and white cinematography, Siskel and Ebert filmed an entire episode in black and white.

10. THEY TURNED AUDIENCES ON TO A NUMBER OF INDEPENDENT FILMS AND DOCUMENTARIES.

While much of the show was dedicated to major Hollywood movies, Siskel and Ebert made a point to review smaller films, including foreign films, arthouse movies, and documentaries. Many people credit the critics with pointing audiences toward the documentary Hoop Dreams, and they were very early champions of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. (Ebert was also a huge fan of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me.)

"They'll talk about art-house films I wouldn't have fathomed seeing, like Heavenly Creatures, and I will give them the benefit of the doubt and go see or rent them," one twenty-something film fan told the Los Angeles Times. "But they could say what they want about Interview With the Vampire or Desperado, and a pack of wolves couldn't keep me away from either. There are some actors I will see anything that they do." (We're thinking she was an Antonio Banderas fan.)

11. A BAD REVIEW OF THE FISHER KING LED TO A VILLAIN NAMED SISKEL IN THE REF.

Ahead of the 1992 Academy Awards, Siskel and Ebert ran a pre-Oscars special in which they discussed that year’s nominees and Siskel declared Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, written by Richard LaGravenese, among the least deserving nominees. "I thought it was overwrought," Siskel told the Los Angeles Times.

Two years later, while at a press screening of Ted Demme’s The Ref, also penned by LaGravenese, Siskel noticed something odd: The bad guy’s name was Siskel. The critic had no idea why the screenwriter would have any ill will toward him, until LaGravenese confirmed through a publicist his reasons for using Siskel’s name.

"I think it's a strange form of revenge,” Siskel said. “I don't know that it's the most effective form of protest. He may have sabotaged those scenes in which it's used, dramatically, by causing you to suspend disbelief by bringing the 'reality' of my name into the mix. I think people may be waiting for a Roger Ebert joke after that." (Always a critic.)

12. SISKEL LIKED JOHN WOO’S BROKEN ARROW, UNTIL EBERT DIDN’T.

One of the duo’s most memorable reviews was, ironically, of a pretty unmemorable movie: John Woo’s Broken Arrow. It marked the only time on the series where Siskel changed his opinion (and the direction of his thumb) after hearing Ebert’s take on a film. He changed his thumbs up to a thumbs down on the air to make it a unanimous stinker.

But it wasn’t the only time that one of the critics swayed the other to a new way of thinking about a movie. “I was far more enthusiastic about Babe than Roger was, and he’s come around,” Siskel told Entertainment Weekly in 1996, before explaining that he “was sort of on the fence about Broken Arrow, and when he made his comments, right then and there I turned my thumb down.” Ebert had his mind changed, too. “I changed my mind on Unforgiven,” he said in the same interview. “I gave it only two-and-a-half stars [in the Chicago Sun-Times]. I wasn’t thinking very well when I reviewed that.”

13. THE BALCONY SEATS WERE EVENTUALLY DESTROYED.

Disney

Like many movie props before them, the balcony seats the film critics occupied for so many years were eventually destroyed. Ebert was not happy. He wrote about how “one of the most iconic set ideas in ... television history, which had survived for more than half of the life of the medium”—and which he believed belonged in the Smithsonian—were instead thrown “in a dumpster in the alley.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
arrow
entertainment
13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Bad Lieutenant can be accused of many things, but one charge you can't level against it is false advertising. Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)

Abel Ferrara's nightmarish character study was controversial when it was released 25 years ago today, and rated NC-17 for its graphic nudity (including a famous glimpse at Lil’ Harvey), unsettling sexual violence, and frank depiction of drug use. The film packs a wallop, no doubt. Here's some behind-the-scenes info to help you cope with it.

1. THE PLACID WOMAN WHO HELPS THE LIEUTENANT FREEBASE HEROIN WROTE THE MOVIE.

That's Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who starred in Abel Ferrara's revenge-exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) more than a decade earlier, when she was 17 years old. She and Ferrara are credited together for writing Bad Lieutenant, though she always insisted that wasn't the case. "I wrote this alone," she said. "Abel is a wonderful director, but he's not a screenwriter. She said elsewhere that she "wrote every word of that screenplay," though everyone agrees the finished movie included a lot of improvisation. Lund was a fascinating, tragic character herself—a musical prodigy who became an enthusiastic and unapologetic user of heroin before switching to cocaine in the mid-1990s. She died of heart failure in 1999 at age 37.

2. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN WAS SUPPOSED TO STAR IN IT.

Christopher Walken had starred in Ferrara's previous film, King of New York (1990), and was set to play the lead in Bad Lieutenant before pulling out at almost the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "[Walken] says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting," Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually." Harvey Keitel replaced him (though not without difficulty; see below), and the film's editor, Anthony Redman, thought Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part," he said. "Harvey is not elegant." 

3. HARVEY KEITEL'S INITIAL REACTION TO THE SCRIPT WAS NOT PROMISING.

"When we gave [Keitel] the script the first time, he read about five pages and threw it in the garbage," Ferrara said. Keitel's recollection was a little more diplomatic. As he told Roger Ebert, "I read a certain amount of pages and I put it down. I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna make this movie.' And then I asked myself, 'How often am I a lead in a movie? Read it, maybe I can salvage something from it …' When I read the part about the nun, I understood why Abel wanted to make it."

4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY.


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

"It was always, in my mind, a comedy," Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing." Boy, did he. 

5. THAT SCENE WITH THE TEENAGE GIRLS HAD A REAL-LIFE ELEMENT THAT MADE IT EVEN CREEPIER.

One of the young women was Keitel's nanny. Ferrara: "I said, 'You sure you want to do this with your babysitter?' He says, 'Yeah, I want to try something.'"

6. MUCH OF IT WAS FILMED GUERRILLA-STYLE.

Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff," editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a bumpin' nightclub, they sent Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.

7. A GREAT DEAL OF THE DIALOGUE AND ACTION WERE MADE UP ON THE FLY.

The script was only about 65 pages at first, which would have made for about a 65-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation," producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there."

Script supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script," she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of—we called it the daily news. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting 90 pages ... is ridiculous."

8. AND THERE WERE EVEN MORE IDEAS THAT THEY DIDN'T USE.

Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him—even though he never got around to filming it—was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said. 

9. THE BASEBALL PLAYOFF SERIES IS FICTIONAL.

The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. (The Dodgers beat 'em and went on to win the World Series.) For the narrative Ferrara wanted—the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant—he had to make it up. He used footage from real Mets-Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991) and added fictional play-by-play. But the statistics were accurate: no team had ever been down by three in a best-of-seven series and then come back to win. (It's happened once since then, when the 2004 Red Sox did it.)

10. THEY HAD HELP FROM THE COP WHO SOLVED A SIMILAR CASE.

The disgusting crime at the center of the film (we won't dwell on it) was inspired by a real-life incident from 1981, which mayor Ed Koch called "the most heinous crime in the history of New York City." The street cop who solved it, Bo Dietl, advised Ferrara on the film and had an on-screen role as one of the detectives in our Lieutenant's circle of friends.

11. THEY DESECRATED THE CHURCH AS RESPECTFULLY AS THEY COULD.

Production designer Charles Lagola had his team cover the church’s altar and other surfaces with plastic wrap, then painted the graffiti and other defacements on the plastic.

12. IT WAS RATED NC-17 IN THEATERS, WITH AN R-RATED VERSION FOR HOME VIDEO.

Blockbuster and some of the other retail chains wouldn't carry NC-17 or unrated films, so sometimes studios would produce edited versions. (See also: Requiem for a Dream.) The tamer version of Bad Lieutenant was five minutes and 19 seconds shorter, with parts of the rape scene, the drug-injecting scene, and much of the car interrogation scene excised.

13. THE "SEQUEL" HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, NOR DID FERRARA APPROVE OF IT.


First Look International

Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him); Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially. 

Additional sources:
DVD interviews with Abel Ferrara, Anthony Redman, Randy Sabusawa, and Karen Kelsall.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive // Getty Images
arrow
Lists
12 Pieces of 100-Year-Old Advice for Dealing With Your In-Laws
Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The familial friction between in-laws has been a subject for family counselors, folklorists, comedians, and greeting card writers for generations—and getting along with in-laws isn't getting any easier. Here are some pieces of "old tyme" advice—some solid, some dubious, some just plain ridiculous—about making nice with your new family.

1. ALWAYS VOTE THE SAME WAY AS YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW (EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE).

It's never too soon to start sowing the seeds for harmony with potential in-laws. An 1896 issue of one Alabama newspaper offered some advice to men who were courting, and alongside tips like “Don’t tell her you’re wealthy. She may wonder why you are not more liberal,” it gave some advice for dealing with prospective in-laws: “Always vote the same ticket her father does,” the paper advised, and “Don’t give your prospective father-in-law any advice unless he asks for it.”

2. MAKE AN EFFORT TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

According to an 1886 issue of Switchmen’s Journal, “A greybeard once remarked that it would save half the family squabbles of a generation if young wives would bestow a modicum of the pains they once took to please their lovers in trying to be attractive to their mothers-in-law.”

3. KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF.

In 1901, a Wisconsin newspaper published an article criticizing the 19th century trend of criticizing mothers-in-law (a "trend" which continues through to today):

“There has been a foolish fashion in vogue in the century just closed which shuts out all sympathy for mothers-in-law. The world is never weary of listening to the praises of mothers ... Can it be that a person who is capable of so much heroic unselfishness will do nothing worthy of gratitude for those who are dearest and nearest to her own children?”

Still, the piece closed with some advice for the women it was defending: “The wise mother-in-law gives advice sparingly and tries to help without seeming to help. She leaves the daughter to settle her own problems. She is the ever-blessed grandmother of the German fairy tales, ready to knit in the corner and tell folk stories to the grandchildren.”

4. IF RECEIVING ADVICE, JUST LISTEN AND SMILE. EVEN IF IT PAINS YOU.

Have an in-law who can't stop advising you on what to do? According to an 1859 issue of The American Freemason, you'll just have to grin and bear it: “If the daughter-in-law has any right feeling, she will always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.”

Advice columnist Dorothy Dix seemed to believe that it would be wise to heed an in-law's advice at least some of the time. Near the end of World War II, Dix received a letter from a mother-in-law asking what to do with her daughter-in-law, who had constantly shunned her advice and now wanted to move in with her. Dix wrote back, “Many a daughter-in-law who has ignored her husband’s mother is sending out an SOS call for help in these servantless days,” and advised the mother-in-law against agreeing to the arrangement.

5. STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. AND CLOSETS. AND CUPBOARDS.

An 1881 article titled "Concerning the Interference of the Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law in Domestic Affairs," which appeared in the Rural New Yorker, had a great deal of advice for the father-in-law:

“He will please to keep out of the kitchen just as much as he possibly can. He will not poke his nose into closets or cupboards, parley with the domestics, investigate the condition of the swill barrel, the ash barrel, the coal bin, worry himself about the kerosene or gas bills, or make purchases of provisions for the family under the pretence that he can buy more cheaply than the mistress of the house; let him do none of these things unless especially commissioned so to do by the mistress of the house.”

The article further advises that if a father-in-law "thinks that the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is wasteful, improvident or a bad manager, the best thing for him to do, decidedly, is to keep his thought to himself, for in all probability things are better managed and better taken care of by the second generation than they were by the first. And even if they are not, it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.”

6. NEVER COHABITATE.

While there is frequent discussion about how to achieve happiness with the in-laws in advice columns and magazines, rarely does this advice come from a judge. In 1914, after a young couple was married, they quickly ran into issues. “The wife said she was driven from the house by her mother-in-law,” a newspaper reported, “and the husband said he was afraid to live with his wife’s people because of the threatening attitude of her father on the day of the wedding.” It got so bad that the husband was brought up on charges of desertion. But Judge Strauss gave the couple some advice:

“[Your parents] must exercise no influence over you now except a peaceful influence. You must establish a home of your own. Even two rooms will be a start and lay up a store of happiness for you.”

According to the paper, they agreed to go off and rent a few rooms.

Dix agreed that living with in-laws was asking for trouble. In 1919, she wrote that, “In all good truth there is no other danger to a home greater than having a mother-in-law in it.”

7. COURT YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

The year 1914 wasn’t the first time a judge handed down advice regarding a mother-in-law from the bench. According to The New York Times, in 1899 Magistrate Olmsted suggested to a husband that “you should have courted your mother-in-law and then you would not have any trouble ... I courted my mother-in-law and my home life is very, very happy.”

8. THINK OF YOUR IN-LAWS AS YOUR "IN LOVES."

Don't think of your in-laws as in-laws; think of them as your family. In 1894, an article in The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “I will not call her your mother-in-law. I like to think that she is your mother in love. She is your husband’s mother, and therefore yours, for his people have become your people.”

Helen Marshall North, writing in The Home-Maker: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine four years earlier, agreed: “No man, young or old, who smartly and in public, jests about his mother-in-law, can lay the slightest claim to good breeding. In the first place, if he has proper affection for his wife, that affection includes, to some extent at least, the mother who gave her birth ... the man of fine thought and gentle breeding sees his own mother in the new mother, and treats her with the same deference, and, if necessary, with the same forbearance which he gladly yields his own.”

9. BE THANKFUL YOU HAVE A MOTHER-IN-LAW ... OR DON'T.

Historical advice columns had two very different views on this: A 1901 Raleigh newspaper proclaimed, “Adam’s [of Adam and Eve] troubles may have been due to the fact that he had no mother-in-law to give advice,” while an earlier Yuma paper declared, “Our own Washington had no mother-in-law, hence America is a free nation.”

10. DON'T BE PICKY WHEN IT COMES TO CHOOSING A WIFE; CHOOSE A MOTHER-IN-LAW INSTEAD.

By today's standards, the advice from an 1868 article in The Round Table is incredibly sexist and offensive. Claiming that "one wife is, after all, pretty much the same as another," and that "the majority of women are married at an age when their characters are still mobile and plastic, and can be shaped in the mould of their husband's will," the magazine advised, “Don’t waste any time in the selection of the particular victim who is to be shackled to you in your desolate march from the pleasant places of bachelorhood into the hopeless Siberia of matrimony ... In other words ... never mind about choosing a wife; the main thing is to choose a proper mother-in-law,” because "who ever dreamt of moulding a mother-in-law? That terrible, mysterious power behind the throne, the domestic Sphynx, the Gorgon of the household, the awful presence which every husband shudders when he names?"

11. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.

As an 1894 Good Housekeeping article reminded readers:

“Young man! your wife’s mother, your redoubtable mother-in-law, is as good as your wife is and as good as your mother is; and who is your precious wife's mother-in-law? And you, venerable mother-in-law, may perhaps profitably bear in mind that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.”

12. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MARRY AN ORPHAN.

If all else fails, The Round Table noted that “there is one rule which will be found in all cases absolutely certain and satisfactory, and that is to marry an orphan; though even then a grandmother-in-law might turn up sufficiently vigorous to make a formidable substitute.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios