The new documentary Life Itself is based in part on Roger Ebert’s autobiography by the same name. Seemingly inborn with a need to absorb, reflect, and report, at the precocious age of 15 Ebert (1942-2013) joined the staff of his local newspaper. At the University of Illinois at Urbana, he became editor in chief of The Daily Illini.
Early in the documentary the story is told of the article Ebert wrote in response to the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young Black girls. He quoted the often-expressed judgment that the crime could be traced to Alabama Governor George Wallace’s door, but Ebert extrapolated the responsibility to all of America, whose bloody race stain, as Lady Macbeth also knew, would never really be erased.
Ebert began working for the Chicago Sun-Times, and within five months became its film critic. In that post he earned a reputation for being fast, literate, and a good storyteller. He also developed a brilliant, nerdy, overweight, socially inept persona as a frequent habitué of Chicago’s O’Rourke’s tavern, populated well into the wee hours by his heavy drinking newsmen colleagues. In 1975 he won the Pulitzer Prize, the first for film criticism.
The Sun-Times was a good fit for Ebert: Both positioned themselves as pro-labor, liberal Democratic. As a critic, himself of working-class origins, Ebert kept in mind his mainstream readership, avoiding high-falutin verbiage, at the same time able to put his sophisticated understanding of film into accessible language. He showed no bias toward any particular genre of film, capable of evaluating quality wherever he found it, and always glowing with the love and possibilities of the medium itself.
The film tells three main stories: Ebert’s rise as a writer; his love-hate, and very public relationship with the Chicago Tribune‘s Gene Siskel, his counterpart for a quarter of a century on the nationally syndicated PBS film-review program that aced out both the brainier critics on the East Coast and the more celebrity-conscious Hollywood scribes out West; and his going sober, which led finally, at the age of 50, to a successful marriage with Chaz, a Black woman with a ready-made family whom he met through AA. This latter third is also fused with Ebert’s successive bouts with cancer, leading ultimately to the removal of his lower jaw and round-the clock medical care.
Throughout it all, Ebert remained upbeat and cheery, knowing that he was loved by a loyal and beautiful woman, also wanting until the very end to connect with his readers. He posted his last blog, his farewell to the world, the day before he died.
Many viewers of the Siskel and Ebert show are likely unaware as to just how wide-ranging Ebert’s talents ran: He wrote a zany, over the top screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, produced several collections of his film writings, travel books on Cannes and London, plus a co-written volume on computer viruses.
Although it’s of interest to see them interviewed on screen, director Steve James overuses such personalities as filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Ramin Bahrani, critics Gregory Nava, Richard Corliss, and A. O. Scott, Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen, various old friends, television producers and agents, as well as Chaz Ebert and family, not to mention numerous outtakes of the Siskel and Ebert show, all of which become redundant by the third or fifth time we see them. At a running time of 115 minutes, Life Itself is full of itself by a good 20 minutes.
Having conducted an extraordinarily unpredictable life, reviewing some 6000 films, Ebert lived his own movie. It was perhaps inevitable that eventually he would star in one. Honest, candid, frank with his readers, he also wanted James’s camera to record his day-to-day existence as he morbidly experienced it: jawless, speechless, with a flap of skin hanging from his upper lip forming a chin you can see through, getting his trachea suctioned out (at least twice in the movie), typing or writing out responses to questions, struggling mightily with exercise machines, keeping up his sunny optimism and dedicated work ethic to the very end.
Ebert wanted these daily indignities seen by his viewers, even though he knew he would probably not survive to see the completed film. Perhaps he believed that more than anything else, he wanted to leave to posterity his unbeatable, can-do, will-do, never-give-up attitude as a lesson to us all.
Except for the length, highly recommended.
Photo: Film official website.
Director: Steve James
120 mins., rated R