Roger Ebert was a hero of mine (try to contain your surprise), but it was only in the waning years of his life that the full breadth of the man become publicly apparent. A philosopher, a humanitarian and a writer of breathtaking skill, he and his late partner Gene Siskel crept into American pop culture so gradually that no one quite realized it until “thumbs up” was a catch phrase. The new documentary Life Itself chronicles his quietly extraordinary career, and anyone who’s ever admired his work owes it to themselves to take a look.
The director, Steve James, actually owes Siskel and Ebert a great deal. Their famous championing of his 1994 film Hoop Dreams helped that movie find an audience that never would have discovered it otherwise. The pair exerted tremendous influence at their height, and when they put their weight behind a little movie, you could be sure that it deserved the attention. They never praised something without merit and they never let their opinions lie without the most vociferous defense prepared for it. Life Itself covers their contentious partnership, and the way they became better by challenging each other in every way. But the film goes beyond that into Ebert’s formative years, his early work on the Chicago Sun-Times, his drinking, his womanizing, his eventual marriage to the love of his life Chaz, and the cancer that claimed his speaking voice (and eventually his life).
It’s not a sugar-coated examination. James doesn’t shy away the alcoholism that plagued Ebert early in his career, his unrepentant status as a ladies’ man before Chaz, and above all his ego: firmly in place at an early age and undiminished until the day he died. Ebert liked being the center of attention. He enjoyed his position of authority, and he cheerfully exercised his power whenever he could. (He took particular delight in flashing his Pulitzer Prize in Siskel’s face.) The film also details one of the more common criticisms leveled against the Siskel & Ebert show: that the duo’s Laurel-and-Hardy bickering got in the way of the movies themselves.
But Life Itself is also quick to point out his unbridled passion for the medium, and how his work helped his audience share that passion. He sought out little movies with no one to back them, and if he liked them, he could bring them out into the light. He was a tireless champion of diversity in cinema: encouraging woman and minority filmmakers while admonishing them to adhere to high standards of quality. There were other, more formal contributions as well. His voice held a populist tone that didn’t diminish from its intelligence and insight. He helped you understand what he saw in the films and to look for things that you wouldn’t otherwise. It affected film lovers who heard it, but also the filmmakers themselves. Martin Scorsese opens up about how Ebert’s support for him helped keep him from suicide, while Werner Herzog refers to him as a “wounded fellow soldier” of cinema, moving forward resolutely even as his body began to fail.
And through it all, we see him mellowing, growing more insightful and warmer even as he loses his partner, his voice and eventually his life. The third act of Life Itself details those travails, documenting his courage in the face of increasing odds, and the deep and abiding love that he shared with his wife, even as bad news got worse. It helped him stay positive – despite some very dark moments which the film covers in unflinching detail – but it also helped him keep working. Thanks to the Internet, he could continue writing and interacting with the world, which he did with increasing energy and enthusiasm. His last review ran just a few days after he died, a critic to the end… and more importantly a film lover through and through. His passion and enthusiasm shine through in Life Itself, inspiring not only those of us who followed his work, but anyone who’s looked tough times in the face. As Ebert says in the film, the movies are a way of understanding the larger world, a world that he embraced with every breath he took. There aren’t a lot of people that wise out there, another sign of who he was and what we lost with him.