The film documentary “Life Itself,” aptly details the live-out-loud personality of the late Roger Ebert, who sped like a burning, soaring comet through film history.
Based on the bestselling 2011 memoir of the same name, the story goes that Ebert fell into being a film critic after being selected while working at the Chicago Sun-Times. Once immersing himself in film reviewing, Ebert took to it instinctively, believing that the movies “helps us to understand each other,” among other things. With interviews from Martin Scorsese, Ebert’s wife Chaz, Werner Herzog, family members, producers from “Siskel and Ebert” and newspaper colleagues, the film is a well-rounded compilation of Ebert’s life.
The doc begins with images from Ebert’s past, interspersed with clips of him in the hospital undergoing painful treatments after surgery for papillary thyroid cancer. After having his lower jaw removed, Ebert could no longer eat, drink or speak. The film is definitely not for the faint of heart, although it aims to inspire and uplift as well, showing Ebert’s defiance and strength in trying to overcome not only the physical battle of cancer, but also the mental and emotional toil of it.
Going back to his professional beginnings, the film tells how Ebert got into newspapers at the height of the printed page; he loved the whole idea of being a news writer, as well as the writing (he could write from an early age but flunked French five times).
He also became a heavy drinker, paying for everyone’s drinks when he had the money to do so. After this went on for a while, Ebert said he would walk home after a night out at the local bar and “wished I was dead.”
It was 1979 when he last had a drink and joined AA. The film cuts to present day with Ebert back in the hospital, writing on his computer and working on his blog, which became “my voice.” Using a computerized voice synthesizer that translates his writing, Ebert’s expressive eyes and hand gestures also helps to communicate his feelings while being surrounded by his devoted wife, step-kids and grand-step kids.
The film goes on to explain the history of the popular television show “Siskel and Ebert.” One of the most affecting parts of the film was Ebert’s professional relationship with Siskel. Although I had viewed several of the shows, I had no idea of both the rivalry and depth of feeling between the two. Both were film critics at powerful newspapers in Chicago (Siskel wrote for the Chicago Tribune) at the same time and were massively competitive.
The two were paired up on the show in 1986, going through a very, very difficult beginning. Both, related one of the producers, led different lifestyles and were mostly different people; while Siskel was taken under Hugh Hefner’s wing, traveling around on jets with Playboy bunnies and was also a sophisticated Yale man, Ebert was a champion of the underdog and working class.
But the relationship on “Siskel and Ebert” worked. And worked and worked and worked – so well that their show and personalities outranked newspapers in being paid attention to for film criticism. They both brought indie filmmakers into the limelight as well; people like Errol Morris, Gregory Nava and Charles Burnett.
The film hits another highlight in showing Ebert’s love for his African-American attorney wife Chaz, who “saved me from living out my life alone.” They met at an AA meeting and became inseparable, with Ebert asking her to marry him.
Only, Chaz had a few wedding jitters – a long time civil rights activist who had marched with Dr. Luther King, she asked her mother about what people might think, about her marrying a white man.
Her mother replied that it only mattered what Chaz thought, which decided her. And so they were married, with Ebert being shown in home movies as a caring and considerate stepfather to Chaz’s children.
Then tragedy came – Siskel was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, with Ebert only finding out on short notice. Before Ebert and his wife could see him, Siskel died at 53 in 1999. Others noted later that Siskel was like the older brother Ebert never had.
Near the end of the film, these things remain in the mind – the profound effect of Siskel on Ebert after all these years, Chaz’s great love for her man and Ebert’s talent and gratefulness about the richness of his life.
If most people could just achieve a few of these things, they should count themselves lucky.
A Magnolia Pictures release, the film was directed with great flair and detail by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and produced by Martin Scorsese and Steve Zallian. Other film production companies involved included CNN Films, Kartemquin Films and Film Rites Productions in association with KatLei Productions.