Ed Johnson-Ott

Ed Johnson-Ott

I first met Ed Johnson-Ott in a darkened room. We both spent much of our lives there, sitting in movie theaters, bathed in reflected light from the silver screen —  watching, hoping, feeling, thinking. 

He’s gone now and, for anyone who loves film — especially reading and writing about it — the loss is immense.

Ed was hard to miss in any room. A big guy with a long, bushy beard, sitting in a wheelchair and peering at you with bright, mirthful eyes behind owlish glasses. He was gay, both in disposition and sexuality, and his brilliance defeated any dark.

Ostensibly, we were adversaries. He was the longtime film critic for NUVO, and I was the new entertainment editor at The Indianapolis Star. Gannett pulled out various stops over the years to kill NUVO, never succeeding. And though the Star would occasionally poach talent, the unspoken media rivalry was always there.

Instead, we became lifelong friends. I went over to Ed and told him how much I admired his writing. He was surprised, saying it was the first time anybody at The Star had ever said a kind word to him. 

And I meant it. Before I fell in love with Ed as a person, I fell in love with him as a writer. There was just this natural ease about his style, with no barriers between him and reader. He called his opinions on movies as essays, not reviews, and often they were about him as much as the film. 

Reading one of Ed's essays felt like sliding into a table at a diner to chat about movies with an old friend —  even if it was the first piece of his you'd ever read.

I don’t mind saying his writing affected my own. Like a lot of young writers climbing the newspaper ladder from the sticks to major metro, I was pretty full of myself —  and that was reflected in my stuff.  My reviews had grown into overly wordsmithed ruminations meant to impress the reader as much as inform. 

Over time my style has become more like Ed’s, using simpler language and emphasizing insight over linguistic calisthenics. In my lifetime, the critics who most influenced me were Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Ed.

Ed put a lot of himself into his essays. On occasion, he only spent a few paragraphs on the movie and instead wrote about something the film inspired in him. Many people remember his piece on Finding Dory, which talked about how the sequel took the dippy character from the first movie and made her story that of a special needs child, and how that related to his own beloved adopted son, Donnie, and the challenges and joys they’ve shared.

Even some people who knew Ed the longest don’t know the genesis of his hyphenated name. He came into this world as Ed Ott, but after meeting Donnie and deciding to become his dad — despite being only a dozen years apart in age — they decided to join their surnames as a token of their bond.

As wonderful a writer as Ed was, he was an even better human being. As our relationship deepened from rivals to colleagues to friends, I came to realize how special he was. 

Ed faced a lot of obstacles in his life. A car accident left him mostly dependent on a wheelchair, though sometimes he’d regain enough strength to use just a cane or walker. About a decade ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which eventually robbed him of his ability to type, and then COPD necessitated carrying large, cumbersome oxygen tanks with him to breathe.

Even as his health worsened, Ed never considered giving up the movie beat. He had a car but stopped driving because he felt he was no longer safe behind the wheel. We developed a system for press screenings where I would drive to his house, load him in his car with his tanks and wheelchair, and drive to the movie theater and then do it all in reverse after.

This afforded us the opportunity for many long talks — about the movies we’d just watched, but also the deeper, intimate things you share with very few. Relationships, challenges, insecurities, all of it.

I hope people will remember Ed as a film critic. He truly was one of the great writers in Indiana history, a giant of Hoosier journalism.

The Indiana Film Journalists Association exists because of him. In 2009 after I'd been laid off from the Star, Ed encouraged me to keep writing in whatever capacity I could. He mentioned that he and former Star critic Bonnie Britton (another gentle soul now gone) had tried to organize an Indiana critics group years before, but nothing came of it. 

We decided to try again, not only to spotlight our own work but to foster the next generation of critics. Today IFJA has two dozen members, and studios actively solicit our attention.

As important a writer as Ed was, people should celebrate the human being even more so. He always chose kindness over hatred, engagement over isolation, and listening over shouting.

Ed wore other hats before he became NUVO’s film critic. Music was a huge passion, and he published a music fanzine, worked for a small record label and DJ’d a local radio show. He was part of a band, The Future, in the early 1980s. He also put out his own solo album in 1978, “Potential Collector’s Item.”

You’d never guess from listening to the gravelly, sage old-man timbre he had later in life, but Ed’s singing voice was surprisingly high and pure. From his song, “At Long Last”:

Nearly dawn, and you gaze through the mist

The dawn light makes the earth seem luminesce

The winds will gently whisper a lullaby of chimes

You softly float in a golden land beyond the pass of time

I'll carry Ed in my heart forever.

Chris Lloyd is director of branding and communications at Aspire Indiana Health, film critic at WISH-TV, and cofounder/critic at The Film Yap.
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