Remembering Gene Siskel

February 14, 2011

I had  a fun back-and-forth on Twitter (@old_Hollywood) this weekend with Portland film critic Shawn Levy. And it took me back to my friendship with the wonderful Gene Siskel.

From Bringing Back The Old Hollywood:

I first met Gene Siskel (later of Siskel and Ebert and their ubiquitous thumbs up) in 1965 when he was at Yale and I was at The University of Pennsylvania. I have no memory now of the circumstances of that meeting but we became friendly and stayed in touch with each other from time to time from that point forward.

Gene became a film critic and in the mid 1970s, he teamed up with fellow critic Roger Ebert to host a show called Sneak Preview, which was eventually syndicated across the country.

I remember being elated that I had a friend who had become a nationally recognized film critic. I thought that Gene would be the one critic who would always give any film I was involved with the benefit of the doubt. (Other than my wonderful sister, of course, but she always, and quite correctly, had to print a disclaimer about my films and even she wasn’t too crazy about some of them.)

Gene, however, panned every single film I ever produced.

It got so bad that Roger Ebert actually noted it when Gene dissed All The Right Moves even though Roger really liked it.

When Gene and I spoke or saw each other, we laughed about it. Actually, he laughed and I pretended to be a good sport.

I last saw him in New York in 1993 after the screenings of Body of Evidence, which I knew he would rip apart. When I ran into him in a hallway there, he just looked at me and shook his head in disgust.

I’ll never forget that exchange.

“Gene, are you ever going to give me a good review?”

“Stephen, are you ever going to make a good movie?”

Fade out.

When What Dreams May Come was released in 1998, Gene had already been receiving treatment for a cancerous brain tumor.

I had been crestfallen at some of the early reviews for the film. I dreaded even reading Gene’s review but I couldn’t stop myself. To my complete shock, Gene (and Roger) gave the film the two best reviews that it received from the national media.

Gene, in fact, gave us the lead quote for all our ads: ”One of the great achievements in film history.”

I tried to reach Gene but couldn’t. A few months later, I was deeply saddened to hear that he had died.

I truly hope that Gene actually enjoyed the film as a film even though I can’t help feeling that he might have experienced it less as a film than as a glimpse of what lay ahead of him on his own personal journey.

I can only hope that it gave him hope and peace of mind.

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