The story of Roger Ebert is a curious one. The man didn’t set out to be a film critic, but he ended up being the film critic. He’s still best known as the owner of one of two fateful thumbs from his days on TV, and if you know him only as the crotchety critic who so often sparred with Siskel, you don’t really know him at all.
On TV, it was always obvious that Ebert was a smart guy, and obviously passionate about movies, but what never came through there was his soul. Roger Ebert was an extremely gifted writer and an incredibly observant man; he had as much to say about life itself as he did about movies, and that’s perhaps why the fact that he titled his memoir Life Itself didn’t feel even slightly pretentious coming from a man who spent most of his working years debating the merits of Anaconda and Cop And A Half.
His film reviews were unique. Sometimes funny, especially when they were feisty; sometimes more enlightening about human behavior than the art of cinema; sometimes personal in a way that few critics ever open up. Critics tend to distance themselves from what they’re reviewing — to place themselves either above or below the work, looking up at a great film in wonder or looking down at a bad film with a sneer. Ebert himself did that sometimes — how else to explain books like Your Movie Sucks? — but more often, he was right alongside a film, looking at it. He grew more reflective in his later life, and so did his reviews. It’s hard to imagine the Ebert of his twilight years ever wanting to assign a reductive “thumbs up, thumbs down” rating system to the movies. He wouldn’t even rank his film in order in year-end Top 10 lists. The man is a bit of a paradox. He became the face of film criticism, one of two film critics that most of the American public would know by name (the other, of course, being Gene Siskel). He was also scorned by many film critics for being too populist. For a time, he made criticism commercial in a way it hadn’t been before — and hasn’t been since. And yet he didn’t play favorites. He didn’t love just arthouse movies, or just blockbusters. He wasn’t snooty in his opinions. He loved a good story well-told and didn’t care at all whether his review would please the masses. That’s why they so often did. He watched and reviewed movies for himself. It just so happens that in doing so, he exposed many people to films they never would have seen without his thumb tilting upward.
He’s not around now to endorse (or demolish) Life Itself, the new Steve James documentary that happens to be all about him — so unfortunately you’re stuck with my review, which is bound to be less eloquent. But I’m reasonably sure he’d be a big fan of this film, and hey — so am I!
Life Itself will enlighten anyone who is not intimately familiar with Ebert’s life and works. It touches on his early days as editor of his college paper, his battle with alcoholism, and his brief stint as a Hollywood screenwriter (with plenty of enticing footage of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, which looks like a must-watch for any fan of the “so-bad-it’s-good” subgenre). A few famous faces appear to wax poetic, including Ebert’s buddy Martin Scorsese. Of course, the doc also spends a great deal of time on Ebert’s final years in and out of the hospital as he battled cancer and an even more epic battle in his life — the constant bickering that went on behind the scenes with rival critic Gene Siskel. The back-and-forth banter between the two was not just for show — they were both bitter rivals and passionate compatriots, with a relationship more akin to squabbling siblings than lifelong friends. And yet it’s obvious that the two men had a profound impact on each other. Life Itself takes its name from Ebert’s own autobiography, and Steve James wisely sticks to that book’s broad scope rather than narrowing its focus down to its subject’s work (though we get the sense that there’s enough juicy backstage drama from At The Movies alone to fuel a whole documentary). It is partially the story of a great man, but even moreso, just the story of a man. For all his trailblazing, there are ways in which Ebert’s story couldn’t be more basic — an ambitious man spends his life making a name for himself, only to find, in the end, that the true reward is the love and family he found late in life that he never expected to have. Leave it to Ebert to live such a grand life and end up with something that still adheres to Hollywood formula.
Even someone without much stake in film criticism should find something here to savor. As most narrative biopics would, the film essentially begins with Roger’s birth and ends with his death and legacy. It is the story of a complete life, ups and downs and all. The film was made in collaboration with Ebert during what ended up being the last year or so of his life, so there’s a lot of footage of Ebert in the hospital after losing his lower jaw in surgery to battle his recurring cancers. He speaks via computer and gives a frequent “thumbs up.” He’s fascinating to look at, as the loss of his jaw makes his face comes across as somehow even more purely expressive.
Throughout most of what we see, Ebert is in shockingly high spirits despite this adversity, though we do also get a glimpse into his darker moods, which betray a more complex portrait. For all its exploration of the man himself, I’m not sure Life itself ever “solves” Ebert. His conflicted feelings about Gene Siskel, and about his mortality, still leave us pondering the figure at the center of it all. Which is, I imagine, exactly what Ebert would want us to take away from such a picture.
If it isn’t already obvious, I have a lot of respect and admiration for Roger Ebert. He was a figure I thought I knew vaguely from TV, but in the last decade or so of his life, he came into his own in a new way, thanks largely to the ways that the internet and social media allowed him to connect to his fans like never before, just when he needed to most. I saw Life Itself at a screening attended by Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, and a dynamic presence all her own. It takes a great woman to inspire a great man, and it became immediately obvious how Chaz Ebert had captivated a man who had previously been a bachelor for so many of his years on Earth.
Roger Ebert’s life is the sort of thing many of us can aspire to, even if we take a very different career trajectory. Though he was always intelligent and ambitious, he ended his life with more dignity than he started it and passed along the wisdom he accumulated along the way. His life was dominated by a love-hate partnership that made him famous, until he found the love of his life to share his final two decades with. He made an impact. Now the man who spent his life talking about, writing about, and fighting about movies is finally starring in one, and it’s beautiful. No one — not even Roger Ebert — could have written this story any better.