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Critics review films, sometimes they even appear in films, but films are not made about them. Roger Ebert, however, did things his own way, and “Life Itself,” a fine and moving new documentary that tells his story, shows us how and why he stood out.
Starting with his Pulitzer Prize-winning print reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, continuing with his hugely influential television partnership with Gene Siskel and culminating in his early adoption of social media, Ebert had a large presence and an expansive personality.
Ebert was a colleague and friend for two decades before his death last year, and I always marveled at how deftly he handled the personal aspects of his job, how much he enjoyed reaching and touching people. As Ebert himself says in a clip that begins the film, “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” that enables us to understand the dreams and fears of others, and no one created that one-on-one connection with more aplomb than he did.
It’s typical of the astuteness with which director Steve James has chronicled this critic’s life that he starts “Life Itself” (named after Ebert’s autobiography, which serves as a starting point) with that quote.
An experienced documentarian whose films include “Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters” and the too-little-seen “Head Games,” James has unerring instincts as to what parts of Ebert’s story are worth spending time on. It’s another mark of the director’s skill that he took me deeper into aspects of that life that I thought I knew the most about.
Though he could not know it when he began, James started this film five months before Ebert’s death, and a key element of it shows how indomitable the man was in the face of ever-increasing health difficulties. Determined that this film be as honest as possible about what he was going through, Ebert insisted that even the medical procedures that were hardest on him be photographed.
Cancer ate away at Ebert, but after the removal of his jawbone cost him the ability to eat, drink and speak in July 2006, he turned to a computerized voice synthesizer, and his blog, to communicate.
Using segments read from Ebert’s autobiography as voice-over, James goes back to the critic’s youthful passion for journalism, which led him as a child to write and publish the Washington Street News, about his neighborhood in Urbana, Ill.
When happenstance led him in 1967 to become at age 21 the youngest film critic at a major newspaper in America, he threw himself into what he felt was the romance of journalism, holding court at a Chicago bar called O’Rourke’s, drinking too much (he joined AA in 1979) and at times being, in his own unsparing words, “tactless, egotistical, merciless and a showboat.”
It was also chance that led to Chicago’s public television station joining Ebert with the Chicago Tribune’s Siskel in a show called “Sneak Previews” that eventually made these two men the best known and most influential critics in America, helping to jump-start the careers of such directors as Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris.
As bristling outtakes from the show demonstrate, both men possessed strong egos and did not take well to being disagreed with. Siskel was, says one observer, “a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system.” Yet over the years, especially after Ebert met and married his wife, Chaz, the men became closer.
Another of “Life Itself’s” strengths are the sections that deal with Ebert’s relationship with Chaz, especially as their vibrant marriage took on the cataclysmic series of illnesses that marked the final decade of the man’s life.
The cascading surgeries that Ebert went through would have toppled a less determined man, and it is difficult to watch the scenes that show him in obvious discomfort. But this behind-the-scenes look at what Ebert meant when he said that Chaz’s love was “like a wind pushing me back from the grave” is deeply moving, as are what the film tells us about the specific circumstances of Ebert’s last day.
“Life Itself” may sound like it would be of interest only to those who knew Ebert personally or to fellow film critics, but the opposite is true. Because of Ebert’s remarkable ability to connect with individuals and enlarge their lives with his passion for film, it wasn’t just a few people who knew him that well. It was everyone.