Life Itself | Director Steve James | Score: 7.4
Over the last few years of his life, his body ravaged by cancer to the point where he couldn’t eat, drink or speak, Roger Ebert went from porcine, preening TV icon to the beloved patron saint of all film critics. Some of this was due to the courage and conviction with which he faced his most terrible health predicament — in the course of things, he lost his lower jaw, his tongue and all of the lower part of his face to the point where, near the end, there was only a loose lower mouth flap dangling like a swing under the roof of his mouth — but a lot of it was the way in which, with the launching of his blog, he finally opened up to the world at large. In this way, despite the fact that he still kept a pretty murderous schedule of screenings, reviews, and other movie-related writings, he also added much in the way of personal revelation and politics (he was an avowed liberal) to his output.
It was a particularly cruel way to go, the man whose smooth, sonorous voice had become absolutely synonymous with film commentary — apart from the various incarnations of his TV show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, Ebert was a popular figure on the lecture/conference circuit, displaying, scene-by-scene, some of his favorite films such as Citizen Kane — suddenly without a voice to contribute. But in the aftermath of his loss, he re-doubled his efforts to be heard, even if he had no way of speaking them (later on, he got a proprietary computer program to ‘speak’ for him, a la Stephen Hawking, only in some facsimile of his own voice). And so he went from being a slightly resented, if not rich and powerful, popular critic to a true populist.
Steve James’ remarkable film, documenting the last few months of Ebert’s life as well as celebrating all that had come before his sickness and demise, from his early roots as an arrogant kid in Urbana, Illinois, to his stint as a decidedly talented but conceited editor at the Daily Illini, his college paper where he was an iron-fisted Editor-in-Chief, to his early days with the Chicago Sun Times, where he was handed the film critic job shortly after joining the ranks of the ink-stained wretches, to his long nights drinking and raconteuring with his fellow daily scribes in dilapidated Chicago watering holes, to his eventual sobriety and world-wide fame along with Siskel, as the only film criticism TV show to have made it big.
Ebert lived a life of regal splendor in many ways, at least by the standards of this occupation, jet-setting to major festivals, interviewing whomever he wanted and for as long as he so desired, but it wasn’t until he quit drinking and finally met and married a woman named Chaz, whom he knew from his AA meetings, that he really settled into being a more three-dimensional human being (Siskel’s widow recounts a story, pre-Chaz, where eight months pregnant, Ebert cut in front of her to grab a cab in New York).
His relationship with his TV spouse was so famously contentious, they often wouldn’t speak to each other outside of the confines of the show. Siskel, who worked for the far more upscale Tribune across the street, was as smooth and garrulous as Ebert was heavy and prickly. When they were first contacted about doing a film review TV show, they would have preferred working with anyone else, but over the course of time, as the film demonstrates, the two became inexorably linked, both financially and professionally, and grudgingly came to appreciate each other. Siskel died of brain cancer back in 1999, and though he wasn’t destined to be as venerated or beloved as his partner, Ebert himself was never quite the same.
If Siskel were more the blue-blooded Ivy-league man (graduating from Yale), Ebert was the anti-elitist: the too-smart kid from a small town who had made it in the big city on the strength and guile of his conviction in himself. Ironically, it was a story fit for the movies, a Preston Sturges rags-to-riches sort of affair, complete with unlikely love story and ravaging disease that somehow makes the protagonist more popular and beloved than ever. It is an irony, one can imagine, far from lost on Ebert, who died just last year, as the film was being completed. Fortunately, the veritable mountain of writing he left in his wake will forever stand as a testament to his talent — and his courage.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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