The late film critic Robert Ebert profiled in lively doc, ‘Life Itself’
You don’t have to be a movie buff to enjoy Life Itself, the fascinating biographical documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert. It’s not like you’re going to be subjected to a lot of obscure intellectual pronouncements on the art of cinema. Instead, the film, adapted by Steve James from Ebert’s best-selling memoir, is a lively chronicle of a robust life buoyantly lived, and the bittersweet final days of the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, early pioneer of the dueling critics TV format, and courageous cancer warrior.
Filmmaker James may be best known for co-directing the extraordinary 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. A three-hour exploration into the lives of two inner city youths hoping their skills on the basketball court will get them into the right high school and out of the projects; the ambitious film was like an entire season of a reality TV show in one giant installment. As unorthodox as it was, it was championed by Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel on their nationally syndicated TV program, Sneak Previews; they never missed an opportunity to tell people to go see it. So James comes from a position of obvious respect and friendship as he documents Ebert’s rich and busy life.
Through a wealth of family snapshots and interviews with old cronies, we meet Roger as a boy in suburban Illinois. The only child of an electrician and a housewife, he was obsessed with newspapers and writing early on, and used to type up his own neighborhood “newspaper,” make copies, roll them up, and deliver them to his neighbors’ doorsteps.
He started out as a sportswriter for a local paper at age 15, then became the editor of his college newspaper—where he wrote about world events like the JFK assassination. As a Ph.D candidate at the University of Chicago, he was offered a temporary job on the staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. In an unforeseen turn of events (but typical for so many critics, including me), when the film critic at the paper retired, Ebert inherited the job.
The film recounts Ebert’s stint as a regular raconteur and borderline lush at a seedy Chicago bar where newspapermen hung out, his decision to stop drinking in 1979, and, of course, the origins of Sneak Previews. Produced by Chicago’s NPR station, WGN, beginning in 1975, and featuring Ebert and Siskel, his cross-town rival from the Tribune, the show ushered in the era of the celebrity film critic. (Interestingly, as wildly popular as the show was in syndication all over the country, the last two markets to grudgingly begin airing it were New York and Los Angeles—whose film communities resented these upstart critics from the Midwest.)
The complex, snarky, often combative relationship between Ebert and Siskel, on and off-camera, is a thread that runs throughout the film. But their understanding of show-biz was acute; they were frequent guests together on The Tonight Show. And Ebert parlayed his reconcilability into some 25 years of dispatches from the Cannes Film Festival, filing daily newspaper stories and broadcast snippets long before the invention of modern social media. (Although, of course, in later years, he established popular Twitter and Facebook accounts.)
The other relationship that glues the film together is between Roger and his wife, Chaz, whom the lifelong bachelor married when he was 50 years old. Chaz and her daughter and grandchildren provided the stability of a family life that Roger had never had. And it’s Chaz’s strength and good humor that supports him through his disfiguring battle with thyroid cancer in the later years of his life. When surgeries rendered him unable to eat, drink, or speak, Ebert continued to write about movies on his blog. “The blog became my voice,” he wrote.
Some eloquent moments come from filmmakers who credit Ebert with starting or saving their careers. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris says persistent praise for his first film on Sneak Previews “gave me my career.” Martin Scorsese even praises Ebert’s disappointment over his The Color of Money—not a “toxic” or “poisonous” review, notes Scorsese, just a respectful nudge—for getting him back on track creatively.
In James’ affectionate telling, Ebert’s life, itself, was bountiful indeed.
LIFE ITSELF *** (out of four) With Roger Ebert and Chaz Ebert. A Film by Steve James. A Magnolia release. Not rated. 115 minutes.