Life Itself, 2014
Directed by Steve James.
Featuring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel and Martin Scorsese.
The life and career of the renowned film critic and social commentator, Roger Ebert.
About halfway through Life Itself, a documentary love letter to the life and death of film critic Roger Ebert, a fellow film critic talks about why he never wanted to become friends with film directors as Ebert did. He didn’t want that friendship to affect his film reviews. Even though I never met Roger Ebert I think it’s important for me to reveal that I was (and still am really) a huge Roger Ebert fan. As a young film fan growing up in Montana in the 1980’s, the television show Siskel & Ebert was my film school before I got a Film Studies degree from a real university. So I went into viewing Life Itself with an already great impression of Roger Ebert, luckily I left the film with an even greater admiration for the man (faults and all) and his work.
What’s remarkable about Life Itself is that Ebert and his wife Chaz give the filmmakers unbelievable access to the difficult last few months of his life after a lifetime devoted to writing about films himself. Ebert is remarkably open and seemingly ego-less about his medical struggles (Ebert lost his lower jaw to cancer in 2006, losing the ability to eat, drink, or speak). There are moments in the film that are hard to watch either because it’s clear that Ebert is in pain or is painfully frustrated by his limitations. While the film follow Ebert’s life from a young age it is the third stage of his life, the part after his cancer diagnosis and loss of his voice, that dominates the film.
Life Itself does a wonderful job of weaving together interviews of Ebert’s friends, colleagues, and filmmakers, snippets of Ebert’s film reviews, photos and videos from Ebert’s life and career, and narration from Ebert’s memoir, also entitled Life Itself, to tell the story of his rise to fame. From a young kid in Illinois who created his own local paper, to the Sun-Times Reporter who insisted on staying at the paper even after larger, more prestigious papers from around the country courted him after he won a Pulitzer Prize, to the love-hate relationship with his television co-host Gene Siskel, to the creation of his blog, Life Itself gives us a unique look at the man behind the thumbs up or down reviews.
Like every great personality Roger Ebert was a contradiction. His reviews were approachable to the everyman, in large part because Ebert celebrated a movie’s ability to get people to empathize with one another. He was extremely knowledgable about world cinema but Ebert never fell into the “film snob” category with his reviews. He truly believed anyone could appreciate a good film, not only someone versed in film history, and he never dismissed films for being too mainstream or ignored the work of new filmmakers.
Ebert liked what he liked and if he didn’t like a film he wasn’t afraid to say it. The clip from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson where he essentially trashes ¡Three Amigos! while sitting on the same couch as Amigo’s star Chevy Chase says it all if you’re wondering if Ebert played it safe with his opinions on films. But Ebert wasn’t a perfect man. The film talks extensively about his early problems with alcohol and while Ebert clearly had a lot of long-term friendships, they are quick to point out that Ebert had a huge ego. One of my favorite quotes from the film was “He’s a nice guy, but he’s not that nice.”
One of the best parts of the movie is the contrast between the relationship between Ebert and his wife Chaz, who he married at age 50, and the working relationship he had with fellow film critic Gene Siskel. Ebert and Chaz’s partnership, and Ebert’s relationship with Chaz’s children and grandchildren, is simply lovely to behold. Ebert and Chaz both obviously loved each other deeply and felt lucky to have found each other so late in life. The pain in Chaz’s face when she talks about the possibility of losing Ebert is truly heartbreaking to see.
Ebert’s relationship with Siskel was obviously much more tumultuous and the section devoted to the opposites described at one point as being “along together in an elevator” is by far the most entertaining part of the film in part because of their open dislike of one another at the beginning of their relationship. The outtakes from promos of the Siskel and Ebert show are particularly fascinating to watch (even if you end up cringing during them).
Losing your ability to speak would professionally and emotionally devastate the majority of us. Ebert refused to retire after he faced the loss of his voice, he instead started to write more and embraced social media and blogging to reach more and more people. Filmmaker Steve James has made a wonderful film that celebrates both Ebert’s life and the importance to film lovers and filmmakers of people writing critically about films. If I had one complaint about Life Itself it was that I wished there was more about Ebert’s body of work (more samples from his work, more insights from filmmakers) in the film, mostly because the portions of the film that do cover his work are so strong. Of course the major thing that the Life Itself is missing, a sit down interview with Ebert, was just not meant to be. Which just proves that Ebert’s life was cut too short as he clearly had so much more to say and to share with the world about movies and life itself.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Amy Richau is a freelance entertainment and sports writer. Follow her on Twitter.