This is going to be a tough one. I can’t even pretend to be unbiased. Roger Ebert is someone I have idolized since I was a kid. What started out as “wow, this guy gets paid to watch movies? Awesome!” evolved into a true appreciation of his writing and thoughts on film and, well, life itself. He transcended film criticism to become one of the most proudly empathetic writers I have ever read. He viewed film as what should be an even playing field, regardless of budget and means – a fact driven home by the numerous Independent filmmakers whose lives he changed by championing their films.
I received my first Ebert Movie Yearbook for Christmas in 1991, at age ten. I had never been a diligent reader, but throw that book in front of me and I was occupied for hours. I read about movies I had never seen or heard of. I learned the actors, directors, and stories. It reached the point where my Mom and I had a game where I didn’t have to go to sleep until she could name a movie from the book and I couldn’t tell her the name of an actor in it. The look of disbelief when she said, “Miller’s Crossing” and I said, “Gabriel Byrne” (I believe I pronounced it “Bernie”) at age ten was something. The Movie Yearbook has been an annual gift ever since.
It was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch Life Itself, directed by documentarian Steve James. Siskel and Ebert had famously championed Hoop Dreams, James’s brilliant 1994 documentary about two inner city Chicago kids with hopes of playing in the NBA. I knew I was going to see Roger in pain, without a jaw (thyroid and salivary gland cancer necessitated its removal), and in the final months of his life. I was already struck by the dignity and frankness by which he was living out his days without the ability to speak, eat, or drink. Indeed, Life Itself is just as much about the brevity of this ride we call life as it is about film criticism. But above all else, it’s about honoring a man that we have all disagreed with at some point, but still respect. That mix is almost impossible to pull off.
As much as it praises Roger, James does not shy away from taking an honest look at his faults, particularly early in his career. He was an alcoholic, a wiseass, and, as long-time friend William Nack put it, had absolutely awful taste in women. Ebert was on a collision course with a lifetime of loneliness, but met his soulmate, Chaz, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (Roger had always been forthcoming about his alcoholism; Chaz, not so much). Their love story is more poignant and rich than any fictional screenplay, and James captures moments in the third act so private and pure that the only reaction is awe. Ebert, by his own admission, credits Chaz with keeping him going during brutal physical rehabilitations and medical treatments.
Much of the central portion of Life Itself is quite entertaining and oftentimes hilarious. James dips into the archives and finds some priceless Siskel/Ebert verbal sparring. Their relationship is covered extensively, ranging from bitterness in the beginning to honest friendship and respect as the years progressed. Both were ultra-competitive types and believed they were always right. It didn’t always rub everyone the right way, but it made for great television.
In his later years Ebert made a very forward-thinking decision that would benefit him greatly once he lost the ability to speak: he embraced the web and its critics. While many big-paper critics shunned this new crop of writers, Ebert saw it as the natural progression of film criticism. He not only housed his reviews online, he became an immensely popular blogger. He enjoyed the all-inclusive nature of the web and was always accessible. So much so that when my Mom, always so proud of her son, contacted Ebert in 2007 to notify him of my site, he responded with something that meant the world to me:
Reads good! I bookmarked it. Best, RE
Life Itself is a glorious celebration of Ebert and everything he accomplished throughout his life. It’s tough at times, but always fair. Regardless of one’s thoughts about films or film criticism, this examination of Roger’s life can be appreciated by all. His defiantly positive outlook in the face of multiple surgeries, rehabilitations, and setbacks is to be emulated and respected. Life Itself is one of the best films of the year.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Length: 115 Minutes
Rating: R for brief sexual images/nudity and language.
Theatrical Release: July 4, 2014 (Limited)
Directed by: Steve James
Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel (archive footage), Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog