I first began reading Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, a couple of months ago. In a sad but not entirely unexpected development, Ebert passed away from his long battle with cancer before I had a chance to finish the book. Being a man with an impeccable and unnerving sense of timing, Ebert publicly blogged his retirement from full time film critiquing two days before he died. His last written words were See you at the movies.
Ebert’s death certainly weighed on my mind and lent even more gravitas to the final chapters of the book where he ponders on the inevitability of death and his relationship with Catholicism. Having finished Life Itself, it’s clear that Ebert did not fear death and although he had a complicated relationship with his alcoholic and deeply religious mother, it didn’t prevent him living a rich, colourful life where he spent the last twenty years enjoying it to the fullest with his wife Chaz as they pursued idyllic pastimes and interests in food, books, travel and of course cinema. Even in the last ten years during the height of Ebert’s sickness, he seemed content and happy thanks to the support of Chaz.
For any fan of Roger Ebert’s writing, this book will be a pleasure to read. Ebert’s laconic, easy-going prose translates comfortably from cinematic critiques to ruminations on his life. He has an uncanny and near photographic memory, vividly describing events from his life as if they happened yesterday. From a young age we see that his intellectual curiousity and his personable nature are what lead him to a successful career as a film critic. He never comes across as particularly ambitious about climbing any sort of career ladder but his passion, professionalism and incredible networking skills meant that he thrived in the Chicago ‘headline’ era of the Sixties where journalists drank and smoked hard but could also dash off to report on a breaking story at a moments notice. Ebert does a fantastic job describing these early days and the larger than life characters that lived it. Considering the commercial and critical success of Mad Men, its hard not to imagination a similar production that explores the lives of newspapermen of the Sixties couldn’t also be a great idea for a television series.
Life Itself covers not just Ebert’s childhood and his early days working at the Chicago Sun Times but then there is also a series of chapters devoted to his relationships with various actors, directors, family members and milestones in his life including his alcoholism and his sickness.
The beauty of Ebert’s writing is his ability to draw the reader into topics and ideas that he is passionate about. He doesn’t necessarily convert you to his way of thinking, but he certainly articulates why he loves something with great flair and finesse. And in Life Itself, he explores many passions in his life – his wife, his mother, his Catholic upbringing, John Wayne, hamburgers, breasts, Werner Herzog – the list goes on.
Life Itself is not entirely comprised of new material. If you read Ebert’s blog that he began after he had his lower jaw removed, you will see some familiar chapters here reprinted verbatim. So in essense, this book is a Greatest Hits of Ebert’s written works about his life. This is no bad thing. As much as I loved reading his extraordinary blog about losing the ability to eat and drink (see Nil By Mouth) online, it’s nice to have it in a hard copy.
Ebert’s memoir tell us that the greatest challenges in his life came from his own alcoholism and his estranged relationship with his mother. She too became an alcoholic after her husband died and became such a religious fanatic that she could never accept Ebert’s lifestyle and he was never able to share with her the relationships he had in his adult life, because they were not with ‘good Catholic girls.’ Ebert goes on to explain that he never developed an adult friendship with his mother and their relationship was forever stuck in the dynamic of a mother and a young boy.
It is to Ebert’s credit though that despite being deprived of a conventional relationship with his mother, he otherwise lives and enjoys his life to the fullest. He wastes little to no time bad mouthing anyone in this book and instead he is preoccupied with writing about what fascinates him and the people he loves. In that spirit, Life Itself is a largely upbeat and optimistic work.
We miss you, Rog. Thanks for all you ever said and wrote.