erik lundegaard

Did Siskel and Ebert Agree More the Longer They Worked Together?

One of the kicks I got out of the documentary “Life Itself,” about the life and times of film critic Roger Ebert, was watching Ebert and his TV partner/nemesis Gene Siskel battle over movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (which Roger loved and Gene dismissed for its last, rambling 30 minutes) and Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (which Roger dismissed and Gene loved). These guys fought about Vietnam war movies the way the rest of the country fought about the Vietnam War.

All of which revived a thought I had as their various shows (“Sneak Previews,” etc.) wound their way through the years: Did Roger and Gene tend to agree more the longer they worked together? It seemed so to me, anecdotally; but unless someone counted the thumbs ups/downs, we’d never really know.

Let me say right off: I’m not about to count the thumbs up/downs for 24 seasons of “Sneak Previews,” etc. No way. But I did compare and contrast Siskel and Ebert’s annual top 10 lists to see how they stacked up there. Here are their number of top-10 agreements over the years: 

Year 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1975  x  x  x        
1976  x  x  x  x      
1977  x  x  x  x      
1978  x  x  x  x      
1979  x  x  x  x  x  x  x
1980  x  x  x  x  x  x  x
1981  x  x  x  x      
1982  x  x  x  x  x  x  
1983  x  x  x  x  x  x  
1984  x  x  x  x  x    
1985  x  x  x  x  x    
1986  x  x  x  x  x    
1987  x  x  x  x  x  x  
1988  x  x  x        
1989  x  x  x  x  x  x  
1990  x  x  x        
1991  x  x  x  x      
1992  x  x  x  x  x  x  x
1993  x x  x  x  x  
1994  x  x  x  x      
1995  x  x  x  x  x  x  
1996  x  x  x  x  x  x  
1997  x  x  x  x      
1998  x  x  x  x      

For a while there, as I was tabulating, it seemed like I was onto something. They start out with only three agreements in 1975 but within a few years they’re together on 7 of the 10. But then it slips. And rises? And slips. And then back to three? But back up again. And we wind up with something fairly inconclusive.

Siskel and Ebert did seem to agree on the No. 1 movie of the year the longer they were together:

Year The Same No. 1 Movie
1975 Nashville
1983 * The Right Stuff
1989 Do the Right Thing
1990 Goodfellas
1993 Schindler's List
1994 Hoop Dreams
1996 Fargo

* 1983 may have been their most agreeable year, since they were exact not only one No. 1, but No. 2 (“Terms of Endearment”), No. 4 (“Fanny and Alexander”), No. 7 (“Silkwood”) and No. 9 (“Risky Business”). 

Their agreements are even starker with the best-of-the-decade lists. They agreed on only one movie as the best of the 1970s:

The Decade (1970s) **  
Last Tango in Paris An Unmarried Woman
The Sorrow and the Pity Apocalypse Now
Annie Hall Amarcord
The Emigrants & The New Land Breaking Away ***
The Godfather I & II Nashville
The Conversation Days of Heaven
Mean Streets The Deer Hunter
The Last Detail Heart of Glass
Saturday Night Fever Cries and Whispers
Le Boucher The Godfather I & II

** Not in order of preference; simply in order presented.

*** Yes, I was tickled that this made Roger's cut.

But they agreed on four films in the 1980s:

The Decade (1980s)  
1. Raging Bull 1. Raging Bull
2. Shoah 2. The Right Stuff
3. The Right Stuff 3. E.T.
4. My Dinner with Andre 4. Do The Right Thing
5. Who Framed Roger Rabbit 5. My Dinner with Andre
6. Do The Right Thing 6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
7. Once Upon A Time In America (long version) 7. Ran
8. Moonlighting 8. Mississippi Burning
9. Sid and Nancy 9. Platoon
10. Kagemusha 10. House of Games 

One could argue, of course, that since there were so many great movies in the 1970s, it was easier to disagree. I’ll take “The Conversation” and you take “Apocalypse Now”; you get “Days of Heaven” and I get “Mean Streets.” There were fewer such options in the 1980s. If not “Raging Bull,” what? “One from the Heart”? “The Return of the Jedi”? “Three Men and a Baby”?

(Sidenote: While “Raging Bull” is Roger’s best of the 1980s, it wasn’t even his best of 1980. He gave that one to “Black Stallion,” which, of course, didn’t make his decades-end list. Some movies just work on us better.)

But all in all, I wasn't noticing statistically what I'd noticed anecdotally.

Then I realized that I was only documenting their time together. What about the years when they were both reviewing movies in Chicago but weren't doing the show yet? What story would that tell?

This is the story it tells:

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1969  x  x        
1970  x  x  x  x  x  x  x
1971  x  x  x  x  x  x  
1972  x  x  x  x  x    
1973  x  x  x  x  x  x  
1974  x  x  x  x  x  x  x

In terms of top 10s anyway, they actually agreed more before they got together. From 1969 to 1974, they averaged 5.66 top-10 agreements. From 1975 to 1998? Only 4.95.

So I actually kind of proved the opposite of what I wanted to prove. I guess that’s why we crunch the numbers.

But we won’t know for certain if Siskel and Ebert agreed more, less, or about the same as the show progressed, until someone does a show-by-show, year-by-year analysis. Someone, I should add, with a lot more time on their hands than me.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

Siskel and Ebert: One liked “Apocalypse Now,” the other “Full Metal Jacket.”

Posted at 05:33 AM on Thu. Aug 21, 2014 in category Movie Reviews  
Tags: , ,


Reed wrote:

Interesting investigation, Erik. You're right that the method here is intriguing, but ultimately doesn't reveal much in terms of a conclusion. What we don't know is if The Black Stallion was Siskel's 11th film or a “Thumb down.” It's an issue of sample size coupled with incomplete information.

One would think that all the thumbs have been archived somewhere, but maybe nobody has done this. I have enough trouble finding time to watch actual movies, and while I enjoy looking at their old clips, it's been three or four years since I've found time to do that even once.

And, as you mention, the input data itself is likely the driving factor. If, over the course of time, movie studios were releasing more crap movies, of course both will agree that B*A*P*S or Jaws: The Revenge is a waste of time. And that means less room for time spent on candidates in the annual top ten.

One additional factor could be that they evolved as critics and were able to “think long” about their initial reviews. That still didn't stop Siskel from panning Silence of the Lambs or The Big Lebowski, but you get what I'm saying. This would likely lead to more agreement, not less.

In the absence of the needed data, it's a really good theory!

Comment posted on Fri. Aug 22, 2014 at 12:26 AM

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