Director: Steve James
Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert
I still think about Roger Ebert a lot. Any time I watch a great new movie, a classic old movie, even a lousy or boring movie, my natural reaction is to look it up online later and see what Ebert wrote about it. In fact, maybe part of the reason I’ve had such an upswing in watching classic films from the Fifties and Sixties this year is because I can be assured Roger has written an essay on it. He was an incredibly prolific writer. I’ve never been able to pin down the exact figure but he was in the ball park of around 10,000 reviews. 10,000! I’d be happy if I ever reached a tenth of that.
Anyway, onto the documentary – Life, Itself – which shares the same title as his memoirs.
Roger Ebert lived an incredibly full and active life. His mind bogglingly voracious work rate and ambition made him seem bound for fame and fortune, in whatever endeavor he set his mind to. He loved writing. He wrote his own newspaper as a teenager. He was the chief editor of his university paper. He worked, and thrived, during an era in which print was king and newspapermen in his hometown of Chicago would scour the city seeking out stories, trumping their rivals for front page scoops and then unwinding by drinking and partying until the break of dawn at which point they’d start the whole process all over again. Ebert got his start in journalism as a sports writer of all things, writing coverage about his Urbana football team. He branched out and wrote about politics and current events during a tumultuous period in American history. At 24 he wrote a more eloquent and thought provoking obituary for John Kennedy than somebody his age should be able to write. Eventually, Ebert settled at the Chicago Sun Times as their film critic, a platform from which he would eventually host a television program with his rival Gene Siskel called At The Movies, which achieved national syndication, and the rest is history.
Roger Ebert was alive during most of the filming of Life, Itself and you get the feeling that this is how he would have wanted to have his final chapter written. The film is directed by Steve James, whose breakout film Hoop Dreams was championed by Ebert who loved it so much that he praised it and praised it until it found a wider audience. It’s also produced by Martin Scorcese, who we know Ebert has admired for many years. I can’t imagine Ebert finding a better pairing to bring his life story to the silver screen.
Life, Itself offers us two things. Firstly, it serves as a great companion piece to the book. Of course it can’t capture every little detail in Ebert’s memoirs, so there’s no segments dedicated to hamburgers or his favourite hotel in Cannes, but instead we do get to have some of Ebert’s friends and co-workers talk about what it was like to see him hold court and tell tales in Chicago pubs and we can listen to industry giants like Werner Herzog share their admiration for Ebert’s devotion to cinema. These little interview snippets help provide a little extra colour and perspective to Roger Ebert, the man. As with his memoirs, the stories are often quite candid and don’t shy away from talking about some simple home truths about Roger. He was ruthlessly ambitious when he was younger. He was a full blown alcoholic for many years. His rivalry with Gene Siskel was very real and whilst it was that chemistry that helped popularize the show, it was also pretty heated at times. We even get some insight into Roger’s infamous love of the female figure (well, breasts mostly) and how that lead into the production of his one and only film Beyond The Valley of the Dolls.
The other thing Life, Itself shows us is some insight into the final year of Roger Ebert’s life. It’s never pretty and seldom even pleasant. Ebert lost his lower jaw to saliva cancer in 2006 and since then he had a series of operations and rehabilitation sessions, none of which had any lasting success in turning around his ailing health. In these segments, Roger is often seen to be grumpy, despondent and exhausted. It’s here that I found a new-found admiration for just how patient, loving and supportive his wife Chaz was for him in his final days. She never losers her temper with him, is never anything less that whole heartedly optimistic and its clear that her devotion and commitment to him helped keep Roger going for a few more years.
The film does disclose a final truth about the life of Roger Ebert that was not immediately apparent when he passed away. If you recall, Roger effectively announced a ‘leave of absence’ from writing reviews and then died just a couple of days later. It seemed an uncanny coincidence and so poignant. That he should sign off with ‘see you at the movies’ and then be gone so soon after. It was not unlike Peanuts creator Charles M Schulz and the timing of death so soon after the final Snoopy comic was published.
There’s an interview with Chaz Ebert late in the film though that reveals what actually happened. After nearly six years of agonizing surgeries and health complications, Roger Ebert quietly and without the knowledge of Chaz, signed an agreement with his doctors that if he should have any complications in his next surgery, that he be allowed to pass away peacefully. And that’s exactly what happened. It’s a sad and disquieting final revelation. Chaz had always stayed optimistic and pragmatic about his chances of recovery and it left me teary eyed to see her talk about his final days.
Being such a long time admirer of Roger Ebert, having read so much of his reviews, his books and his blog, I can’t really critique this documentary with any objectivity or have any sense of how interesting it would be to someone who knows nothing about him. For my money, I thought James did an excellent job with Life, Itself. It does a thorough and effective job encapsulating Ebert’s contribution to cinema and how he helped so many talented people find an audience. It gives us great insight into his complicated relationship with Siskel and in the final third of the film, it chronicles how he became an incredible battler in his later years, beset by poor health but defiantly sticking to his work. In his final year, Ebert wrote three hundred film reviews, a personal best.
Roger Ebert was a giant in the film industry. He loved cinema and he projected that energy into popularizing the art form for over four decades. This film is a fitting tribute to the man and his accomplishments.