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BANKIE'S HOT TAKE #60 - Mayor Ebert in Godzilla '98



For the last Hot Take of 2023, I decided to change it up and talk about something that has always piqued my curiosity for over twenty years.


WHY WAS ROGER EBERT SPOOFED IN THE 1998 FILM “GODZILLA”?


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I was 13 years old when I saw “Godzilla” for the first time. Although it was far from the greatest movie in history, I enjoyed it for what it was.


Matthew Broderick was an understated lead as the scientist Niko Tatopoulos, Hank Azaria as the aggressive cameraman “Animal”, and Jean Reno stole the flick as French Secret Service agent Phillipe Roache. I wish he got the good cup of coffee he was looking for during his mission. 


However, a lot of the flick fell flat in the story-telling. It just could have been a lot better, but after pondering about 25 years later, it was more about the spectacle and the destruction Godzilla made while trying to protect his layer of eggs in Madison Square Garden.


And then, there was the inexplicable.


As the movie shifted to “The City That Never Sleeps”, outside Gracie Mansion, there was a re-election campaign press conference being held in the rain.


This was the introduction to Mayor Ebert.


Even at 13, I knew that was a knock on the legendary film critic Roger Ebert. But why?


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From the 1960s to the early 2000s, Roger Ebert was, among many in the film industry, the authority on reviewing pictures. Writing for the Chicago Sun Times starting in 1967, Ebert’s critiques on movies were among the best in the country. Revered by many, Ebert’s love of the genre came through in every review he wrote, whether it be a classic or a bomb.


In 1975, he paired up with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel to start a show on a local PBS station reviewing movies. Initially called “Sneak Previews”, the program evolved over the years, getting syndicated in 1982 by the Tribune, and rechristened itself “At the Movies”. In later years, the show was picked up in a package by the Walt Disney Company, rebranded again as just “Siskel and Ebert”, and was aired nationally until January 1999.


Within the cultural zeitgeist, Siskel and Ebert became best known for their “thumbs-up” or “thumbs down” rating system. I remember as a kid, watching movie commercials, always hearing the phrase “Siskel and Ebert gave this movie TWO THUMBS-UP”, which instantly gave the movie credibility for the casual moviegoer to go to the theater.


Seeing the power of Ebert in the film world, it begs to question why he would be spoofed in Godzilla on May 20, 1998.


Apparently, it came at the expense of a petty grudge.


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Roland Emmerich was the director and executive producer for the Godzilla blockbuster, joining the project in May 1996 prior to the release of his blockbuster Independence Day.


Initially taken on by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, best known for writing the Disney animated classic Aladdin at the time, Godzilla was initially developed as a script in 1994, keeping its integrity of the original monster, while trying to add more sci-fi elements and a deeper story.


However, once the script continued to evolve, TriStar Pictures ultimately decided to move on from Elliott and Rossio and brought on Emmerich and Dean Devlin to revamp the vision into more of a spectacle. Emmerich kept on a couple of ideas developed by the duo but had full autonomy over the concept going forward.


Unlike the original concept of the monster, approved by original director Jan De Bont, Emmerich hired production designer Patrick Tatopoulos to develop a sleeker, more speed efficient looking entity. 


As Emmerich stated in an interview with CNN in 1998, “I didn’t want to make the original Godzilla. I wanted nothing to do with it. I wanted to make my own. We took part of [the original movie’s] basic storyline in that the creature becomes created by radiation and it became a big challenge. But that’s all we took. Then we asked ourselves what we would do today with a monster movie and a story like that. We forgot everything about the original Godzilla right there.”


From that point on, Godzilla was completely all Emmerich. He and Devlin got the green light from TriStar after they completed the first draft of their script on December 19, 1996. After the start of filming on May 1, 1997, TriStar released the first teaser trailer on July 2, 1997 during the Men in Black premiere. After production wrapped on September 26, a second trailer was put out on November 7 during the premiere of Starship Troopers.


The buzz began to swell for the movie. Taco Bell became the official fast food of the movie, marketing and promoting the heck out of the impending movie. The synergy between the Taco Bell chihuahua and the monster made some of the most compelling commercials of the 1990s, complete with the pup trying to lure out Godzilla with tacos, stating “Here lizard, lizard, lizard.”




Brilliant stuff.


Once the movie was released on May 20, 1998, Godzilla grossed $379 million worldwide, against a production budget of $130-150 million. However, in spite of the tremendous marketing in the United States, it broke even domestically, falling way short of expectations. In fact, from the major film critics around the country, the movie was critically panned.


No one was more critical of Emmerich’s film than Roger Ebert.


Emmerich was no stranger to Ebert’s remarks. In Independence Day, although Ebert gave the movie 2 ½ stars in his review, he gave, in my opinion, some condescending opinions during his piece, including this paragraph:


Although the special effects in “Independence Day” are elaborate and pervasive, they aren't outstanding. The giant saucers are a dark, looming presence at the top of a lot of shots, big but dull, and the smaller “fighter” saucers used by the aliens are a disappointment--clunky, squat little gray jobs that look recycled out of ancient Rocket Men of Mars adventures.


Ouch. He did say, to be fair, “I kind of liked it.” Such passive aggressiveness from Ebert there.


So during the production of Godzilla, Emmerich, feeling a ‘little’ petty, went for the jugular, naming the Mayor of New York City “Ebert”, played by actor Michael Lerner. There was a definite resemblance to Roger, as Lerner had a head of gray hair and was of thicker build. Mayor Ebert even had an assistant on his campaign named “Gene”, portrayed by Lorry Goldman. “Gene” also bore a similar look to Siskel.




On first glance, you would think that this was going to be a strict parody, down to the “thumbs-up” Mayor Ebert used, which was a major part of his image during his re-election campaign. Also, you’d expect both men to be eliminated by Godzilla at some point in the flick.


That didn’t happen. In fact, it came off more mean spirited than anything else.


Mayor Ebert was more worried about his self-image than being bound to protect the city. He was moody, even in discussions with Colonel Hicks of the U.S. Army, coming off like a know-it-all. Furthermore, the Mayor was heavy into snacking, embellishing on a junk food habit he had when he was stressed.


Gene fared no better, acting like a passive, sniveling assistant to the gruff, egotistical Mayor.


Worst of all, or maybe even funniest, Mayor Ebert and Gene were spared, having no interaction with the monster. In fact, at the end of the movie, Gene quits the Mayor’s campaign, complete with a “thumbs-down”.


What a spectacle.


To say Ebert was not impressed was an understatement. In his review of Godzilla, he started it out with this paragraph:


Going to see "Godzilla" at the Palais of the Cannes Film Festival is like attending a satanic ritual in St. Peter's Basilica. It's a rebuke to the faith that the building represents. Cannes touchingly adheres to a belief that film can be intelligent, moving and grand. "Godzilla" is a big, ugly, ungainly device to give teenagers the impression they are seeing a movie. It was the festival's closing film, coming at the end like the horses in a parade, perhaps for the same reason.


SNUG.


After more negative remarks about the movie’s presentation, Ebert then went on the offense about the homage to him:


Oh, and then there are New York's Mayor Ebert (gamely played by Michael Lerner) and his adviser, Gene (Lorry Goldman). The mayor of course makes every possible wrong decision (he is against evacuating Manhattan, etc.), and the adviser eventually gives thumbs-down to his reelection campaign. These characters are a reaction by Emmerich and Devlin to negative Siskel and Ebert reviews of their earlier movies ("Stargate," "Independence Day"), but they let us off lightly; I fully expected to be squished like a bug by Godzilla. Now that I've inspired a character in a Godzilla movie, all I really still desire is for several Ingmar Bergman characters to sit in a circle and read my reviews to one another in hushed tones.


He gave it 1 ½ stars, which was way more generous than I thought he’d be.


A few days later, Ebert, along with an ailing Siskel via telephone, reviewed the picture for their show.




The final seconds of the review was actually pretty funny, at least from this viewer’s perspective.


EBERT: The only thing about Mayor Ebert and his sidekick was that at least Godzilla didn’t step on us.

SISKEL: But Roger, I fully expected that to happen. And I think the audience was waiting for that to happen. 

EBERT: Yeah, maybe they should’ve included that. Bring ‘em onstage and at least squish them, right?

SISKEL: Exactly. There are missing scenes.


—--


Regardless of how you felt about Godzilla in 1998, the Mayor Ebert character always resonated with me.


IN FACT, while doing research for this Hot Take, I learned that the Mayor continued on, in cannon with the ‘98 movie, for the Godzilla: The Series cartoon.




This version of the Mayor, complete now with a mustache, was solid. Still with Michael Lerner as the voice actor, Mayor Ebert, as cynical as ever, made his objective to keep NYC safe from the various mutated creatures trying to take over. I actually enjoyed the cartoon more than the movie. It is on YouTube and worth watching.


So the question remains: WHY WAS ROGER EBERT SPOOFED IN THE 1998 FILM “GODZILLA”?


The answer: PETTY REVENGE.


The drama is real, especially in Hollywood. However, Mayor Ebert gets a “thumbs-up” from me.


Happy New Year. #BANKONIT


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