“Hoop Dreams” director Steve James takes us on a rollercoaster ride of the legendary film critic's personal and professional highs and lows
It's fair to say that there's not a film critic working now who can go into “Life Itself” without already having some feeling or opinion about Roger Ebert. Like him or not, there's no denying that his was a singularly influential voice, from his Pulitzer-winning writing for the Chicago Sun-Times to his national impact on television alongside fellow Windy City critic Gene Siskel to his active presence as a blogger after cancer robbed him of the ability to speak.
As I wrote on the occasion of his death, Ebert's work colored my entire life: I started watching “Sneak Previews” as a child, and seeing Ebert and Siskel spar over movies offered my first realization that this was the sort of thing one could do for a living. And when I met Ebert in 1995 at the USA Film Festival, which I was programming at the time, he was gracious and generous and compassionate. (Would that meeting all of my idols over the years had gone so well.)
I mention all this because writing about “Life Itself,” Steve James‘ documentary based on Ebert's memoir, presents itself as a very different task than writing about, say, James’ “Hoop Dreams.” I love the latter movie despite knowing almost nothing about sports, and if I merely like this new one, it's because I know enough about the subject matter to be left wanting more.
Ebert was already battling cancer when James began making the film, so all of the footage shot by the director features the critic in hospital beds or in wheelchairs, using a laptop to communicate. We get a close look at the ravages visited upon Ebert's body, including the loss of his lower jaw, and we see the dedicated devotion of his wife Chaz in taking care of him throughout the process.
“Life Itself” isn't just about the end of Ebert's life, however; we see photos of the young man born to working-class parents in Urbana, Ill., who would go on to edit the Daily Illini before getting a job at the Sun-Times. Friends and colleagues describe Ebert as an old-school newspaperman; even in college, he was able to quickly churn out a moving and powerful op-ed about the four little girls murdered in a Birmingham church bombing. (The JFK assassination provided the collegiate editor with an actual “Stop the presses!” moment.)
His alcoholism, his Pulitzer, and his co-authorship of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” are duly noted, before we arrive at his fractious but successful partnership with Gene Siskel. Marlene Iglitzen, Siskel's widow, offers some of the film's most fascinating moments: She occasionally calls out Ebert's egotism, although she has much more good to say about the man than bad, and she reveals that while Ebert was hanging out with Russ Meyer, Siskel had a moment as part of Hugh Hefner‘s entourage. (A photo of Siskel standing next to a bare-breasted woman in the grotto of the Playboy Mansion had me hankering for a Siskel-focused sequel.)
James does a fair amount of due diligence in keeping the film from being a hagiography; in addition to Iglitzen's reminiscences, we hear from critics like Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who discuss whether or not “Two Thumbs Up!” counts as legitimate criticism. Filmmakers from Martin Scorsese (who executive produced “Life Itself”) and Werner Herzog to Ava DuVernay and Ramin Bahrani mention the positive impact that Ebert's support had on their careers; it might have been interesting to hear from people like Rob Schneider and Vincent Gallo, who publicly feuded with the critic.
There are legitimately moving moments to be found throughout, and Roger and Chaz's relationship is fascinating. Certainly, anyone who's ever tended to a loved one will recognize the moments in which both patient and caregiver lose patience with the whole process, and with each other. Their love for each other shines through, even when she wants to occlude details from James (Roger sides with the director) and when he rolls his eyes at her optimism over his ongoing prognosis.
There's an entire movie to be made about the phenomenon of Siskel and Ebert, from their prickly love-hate relationship to their impact on the culture at large, and what we get from “Life Itself” feels tantalizingly insufficient. I also would have liked to have known more about Ebert's student years in South Africa (something he frequently referenced in his writings) and other facets of his life that are handled fleetingly or not at all.
But even if this movie isn't the last word on a notable man of letters (a rapidly disappearing job description), “Life Itself” paints a captivating portrait of a man who embraced life and art, whose spirit never flagged even when his body did. You don't have to be a film critic to find inspiration from Roger Ebert‘s extraordinary life.