When I was a kid, he was just the fat guy on the sneak-preview show that turned up sometimes on the PBS station. I never really liked him. I didn’t like the skinny one, either. But I loved listening to the two of them together, Ebert and Siskel, arguing about movies I would probably never see. I lived then in the deep north Georgia woods and wheedled my way to the cinema only a handful of times each year. Yet these guys made me love movies, even when I rarely got to see any.
All this came back to me while watching Life Itself, the lovely, incomplete-seeming documentary about Roger Ebert’s life — particularly the last five months of it, before he died in 2013 after a leonine battle against cancer. The disease only seemed to make him, as a writer, more prolific and generous.
This movie is itself a testament to Ebert’s generosity and his career-long drive to champion and sometimes befriend emerging filmmakers. It’s directed by Steve James, whose Hoop Dreams (made with Frederick Marx in 1994) was an underdog movie that Ebert tirelessly talked and wrote about. It became a cause célèbre, especially when it was not nominated for a best documentary Oscar that year, leading to an ongoing debate about how the Academy selects the films it honors.
Anyway, back to Ebert. Sharing the title he gave his 2011 autobiography, Life Itself throws us a couple of necessary shocks at the start. First is the sight of the Chicago Theatre’s marquee, declaring a celebration of life for Ebert, 1942–2013. No spoilers here.
The second is the sight of Ebert himself, in a hospital bed during those last months of his life. Missing his lower jaw, due to a 2002 bout with cancer, the man at first glance is alarming, with that rubbery loop of lips and chin-skin, dangling unsupported by muscles, lower teeth or bone. You can see right through this fleshy noose to his neck behind it. Disgusting — that’s your instinctive response, pure repulsion.
But then, he’s asked a question, and Ebert’s eyes light up with the smile that his ruined face can no longer fully create. The soul shines through — or at least the wit, intelligence and stubborn will, for those who don’t believe in souls. You forget his physical ruin.
Life Itself gives us the thumbnail overview of Ebert’s life as a Chicago kid, already in love with the (then) grand world of newsprint. He was a star editor at the student newspaper at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and did what was considered unthinkable as a college kid. In the immediate wake of JFK’s shooting, he saw that an ad featuring a cartoon figure aiming a musket was placed directly across from a photo of the late president. So he forced the tough-guy linemen to stop the press long enough to let him change the layout.
Ebert didn’t start by writing about movies. He probably could’ve written about anything; he had the talent and the drive. It just so happened that the longtime film critic (a loose term at a time when that profession was even less respected than it is now) retired five months after Ebert was hired at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967. He got the job and proceeded to help change the way this country watched and talked about movies.
He was arrogant, especially in his early days, a bit of a showboat. “It worked,” one longtime colleague recalls, “because he could back it up.” He almost went off the rails, though, shutting down bars every night before he found sobriety and AA. At a 12-step meeting, he met his wife-to-be, Chaz. She’s a large presence in Life Itself, naturally, which also features heavy film-world hitters: Time Magazine critic Richard Corliss, the New York Times’ A. O. Scott, and filmmaker friends Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese.
Another of the directors Ebert nurtured, featured here, is Ava DuVernay, currently shooting Selma in Georgia and Alabama. Speaking about the anxiety an artist feels — especially one as marginalized as an African American woman — on having her work judged mainly by straitlaced white men, DuVernay cites Ebert’s populism, his sensitivity to all walks of life. She calls him an “honorary brother.” (Ebert also brought attention to another striking film by a woman of color, writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou.)
Ebert (and Siskel’s) influence isn’t entirely positive. Their thumbs-up-or-down reviews perpetuated a black-and-white approach to appraising film, a medium that needs infinite shades of gray to discuss. The reductive practice became widespread. When I worked for what used to be an Atlanta newspaper, those of us who wrote about movies had to assign our reviews stars, then a grading system copied from Entertainment Weekly. Trying to quantify something like film this way is like trying to tailor a suit for a man made of steam. But that is the consumer’s advocate aspect of being a movie critic.
Ebert did more good than harm, though. Unlike the headier, semi-academic or pseudohipster film coverage by New York–based Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, say, his writing was always clean, direct, simple, conversational. He made movies, even the most challenging, approachable through the way he wrote about them.
Among his ink-stained brethren, he caused a great deal of envy, then schadenfreude, too. I remember when a former newspaper colleague of mine described how Ebert, whom she’d recently seen at a critics’ conclave in New York in the early 2000s, looked just awful. She couldn’t quite disguise her glee. And yes — now, probably more than ever — anybody who writes about movies wishes he or she could have Ebert’s career. But he earned it. He made things better for movie lovers and also movie makers.
He wasn’t a saint, though. “He is a nice guy,” a colleague says. “But not that nice.” Evidence of this shows up in hilarious outtakes of Ebert and Siskel grousing at each other while shooting the promo segments for their show. The pair — Siskel, a trim sophisticate working for the wealthy Tribune, and the working-class Sun-Times’ chubby everyman Ebert — made a fantastic, prickly odd couple, always trying to get one over on the other. There’s a great story, set in the first-class cabin of a jet, about a prank Siskel played on Ebert that paid off beautifully, because Siskel completely understood his colleague/antagonist’s egotism.
Siskel died young in 1999, and it’s a shame not to have his voice in the movie. It’s a shame not to have more of Ebert’s own voice, too, rather than the synthesized speech he tapped out on his laptop in his last years. Here’s why Life Itself feels a little incomplete. Ebert died much sooner than Chaz or filmmaker Steve James expected. So, the first-person aspect of the movie is cut short by the critic’s increasing pain and decline. He’s still with us, though, in his reviews and in the careers of filmmakers he helped along the way. And in the minds of film lovers he opened by sharing his passion for the flickering magic that we slip into a dark room to discover again and again.
Life Itself. A documentary by Steve James. Rated R. 115 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.