Here's the deal.
Ebert was the most famous movie critic who ever lived. No critic will ever be as famous again, because his need to share his passion for films via television and text was so huge that there was no room for vanity or putting on a fake face. Audiences responded to his honesty--and the fact that he and Gene Siskel were genuine rivals. That was lightning in a bottle. Ebert was the new model film critic who took to the web like a duck to water because he was always about honest, forthright engagement.
He wasn't speaking to film fans from on high, lecturing to them about what they should like. He was enthusiastically sharing what he loved. He liked to discover new talent like Michael Moore (he responded to Moore's plea to go to the first "Roger and Me" screening that no one else was seeing at Telluride) and Errol Morris, who credits Ebert's review of "Gates of Heaven" with his career.
And he did something with his fame, as Moore pointed out on CNN, that no one critic can do today: he reached the mainstream. That's significant, because while film criticism is alive and well on the web, fewer critics have been able to build national followings the way Ebert did. No other critic has been able to make television work for them, either. All the would-be "At the Movies" have failed--and Ebert couldn't keep a movie review show going without his own full-throttle voice.
What looking death in the face did for Ebert was free him from caring about how he was perceived, or being worried about writing about topics other than film. On the web he could write about anything, and so he did.
Here's Ebert's famous article "I Do Not Fear Death," from 2011, and here's his winning cartoon caption for the New Yorker. Here's our obit. And it looks like "Hoop Dreams" filmmaker Steve James plans to continue with his Ebert documentary, "Life Itself."
Below, a sampling of what the internet and media world are saying in memoriam of Roger Ebert.