Roger Ebert’s ‘Life Itself’ Is Warm-Hearted, But What About the Movies?

Book review: The famous critic expertly recounts his boyhood, marriage and illness, but his memoir shines when it sticks to film-going

It’s shocking, but movies are of secondary concern in “Life Itself,” the new memoir from Roger Ebert.

Yes, the book features anecdotes from years spent churning out reviews of classics such as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Boyz ‘N The Hood” and boasts amusing remembrances of film greats like the hard-drinking Lee Marvin and a “damned if I care” Robert Mitchum.

But readers hoping for an in-the-trenches account from Ebert’s decades as one of the nation’s taste-makers will be disappointed.

Instead, America’s most famous film critic offers an over-stocked tour through his early life as the only child of an electrician, his struggles with alcoholism, his love affair and eventual marriage to his wife, Chaz, and his battle with cancer — a fight that robbed him of the ability to speak, eat and drink, while leaving him, in his own words, looking like “the Phantom of the Opera.”

There are also odes to the fast food chain Steak ‘N Shake, loving accounts of travel to foreign cities such as London and Venice, riffs on secular humanism, and a chronicle of lost virginity involving a prostitute in South Africa. Even boyhood dog Blackie gets a chapter. 

At the end of it, you’ll know more about Ebert than you do your closest friends, and that’s not always a good thing.

Though the prose is crisp and the stories, like Ebert’s best reviews, glide effortlessly without ever calling attention to the writing, it’s hard to shake the feeling that some of what’s recounted could have benefited from the red pen and that the most interesting bits were left on the cutting-room floor. 

"Life Itself" is generous, witty, and warm-hearted, but it’s also a bit rudderless. 

Ebert’s unflinching account of his struggles with alcoholism is admirable, as is his dignity in coping with the surgeries that mangled his face and robbed him of his voice, but the book takes off when he describes his career critiquing movies.

The emotional highpoint is not when he finally gives up the bottle or accepts his medical condition, but in his loving tribute to Gene Siskel, his co-anchor on a weekly review series “Siskel & Ebert: At The Movies.”

The tall, relatively slender, and private Siskel, who died of a brain tumor in 1999, was the physical and temperamental opposite of the squat, portly, and effusive Ebert. Yet the two shared an improbable on-screen chemistry that worked off-screen, too.

Part of the fun of their pairing were the moments when the two parted ways on a movie and would engage in full-throated debates about a film’s merits. That combativeness, Ebert writes, almost inspired a sitcom about two rival critics joined in a love/hate relationship, but both CBS and Disney ultimately took a pass on the pitch.

“Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love,” Ebert writes.

Love forms the spine of Ebert’s memoir — love for his emotionally crippling mother, love for his former bar-mates and fellow newspaper hounds, and love for Chaz, the woman who has been a guardian angel, fiercely protective of his business interests and his medical care.

It also appears, in an all-too-brief account of what films excite Ebert, in which he recounts what makes a memorable film.

He doesn’t have a precise formula, mixing in everything from the joyful physical movement that defines  “Singing in the Rain” to the great dialogue that bubbles up during the first 30 minutes of “White Men Can’t Jump,” but  it seems to boil down to you know it when you see it.

“When you go to the movies every day, it sometimes seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skillfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes instead of educating them,” Ebert writes. “Then you see something absolutely miraculous, and on your way out you look distracted, as if you had just experienced some kind of a vision.”

Too true. More on that next time, please.