film critic Joel Siegel has died

I’m sorry to say that I was not at all surprised to hear that Joel Siegel, film critic for ABC’s Good Morning America, died yesterday here in New York. I cannot say I was a friend or even an acquaintance of his, but I did see him frequently at press screenings, and we occasionally exchanged a pleasantry. And the last time I saw him — which I think was at the screening of Ratatouille almost two weeks ago — he looked suddenly extremely frail and fragile after seeming to have been in pretty good shape lately. He was 63, and had been battling colon cancer for six years, but it had looked for a while — at least from my distant perspective — that he’d been much healthier over the past year or so than he had been previously. But when I saw him that last time, I was startled by his condition, and suspected that it wouldn’t be long before we heard this sad news.
Before his 25-year GMA gig, Siegel was the critic on the local evening news broadcast on the NYC affiliate of ABC, and his enthusiastic reviews were probably my first exposure to the idea of film criticism (even before Siskel & Ebert’s PBS show, which I loved as a kid). Certainly his passion for movies, which came through whether he loved or hated a movie, was a huge influence on me as a young movie lover.

My most substantial encounter with Siegel at a screening came a few years ago at the Fox HQ here in NYC, which is home to a lovely 20th Century Fox screening room… as well as the studios and offices of Fox News. The security at this building was ramped up to an asinine — but pointless — level after 9/11, and after being harassed and hassled by rent-a-cop “security guards” one too many times, Siegel and I, on our way to the same screening, finally both snapped at the same time. After fuming between ourselves for a few minutes over the idiocies of the security theater we were being forced to play a part in, we finally led a revolt, demanding an explanation. We didn’t get one — the building personnel could only sputter incoherently, unable to offer any reasonable justification for the charade they were forcing us into. But the security procedures eased up to a far more reasonable level after that. I don’t imagine I had anything to do with that, but I do imagine that Siegel’s sway with the studios did.

New York City after 9/11 has felt, sometimes, like an exercise in getting the general public used to being hassled by uniformed officers, even if they’re just rent-a-cops; getting us used to showing ID anywhere and everywhere, even if it could serve no possible purpose; getting us used to being under constant suspicion of wrongdoing, under constant surveillance. I’ve tried to undermine it whenever I can (not undermine genuine security, that is, but the futile yet intrusive charades), just striking my little blow for freedom where I can. So it doesn’t surprise me to learn that Siegel had been something of a troublemaker long before he was a film critic. According to Variety, Siegel:

became the only drama critic to be nominated for a Tony, for his play “The First” about baseball player Jackie Robinson. Siegel became involved in the Civil Rights movement, registering voters in Georgia in 1964 and later wrote jokes for Robert F. Kennedy, and was with Kennedy at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel when he was assassinated in 1968.

Doesn’t surprise me at all.

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