Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013, after a long battle with cancer. At the time of his passing, he was a few months into working with Hoop Dreams director Steve James on a documentary about his life and work as an influential film critic who, alongside the late Gene Siskel, discussed and argued over movies every week on television before giving them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The doc, entitled Life Itself, based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, opens in select theaters on July 4.
Life Itself is sad, of course — it’s a biography and an elegy that follows the decline in Ebert’s health, but skips back through Ebert’s early newspaperman days into his pairing with Siskel on what was then called Sneak Previews, while also covering his marriage to Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert. And its heartbreaking timing means the film can’t help but be radiantly affectionate about its subject, which sidelines some forays into discussions of how some of their colleagues felt Siskel and Ebert oversimplified criticism to a simple yes or no vote. But it’s also uplifting and fiercely inspiring, a portrait of someone who loved passionately and well. Here are some of the ways it will make you want to do the same.
Ebert worked as a high school sports reporter for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette at 15. In his twenties, he became the youngest film critic in the country in 1967 at the Chicago Sun-Times, the paper he’d write for until his death. The movie and media industries were then, as now, concentrated in New York and L.A., but being based in another part of the country didn’t stop Ebert from becoming a nationally recognized voice.
Ebert’s clear, straightforward approach to writing would eventually make him the first film critic to win a Pulitzer. And he wasn’t just devoted and opinionated, he was impressively prolific — as one of his newspaper colleagues points out in Life Itself, “He could knock out a movie review in 30 minutes,” which should be motivation in itself to get some words on a page.
Life Itself delves into Ebert’s hard-drinking younger days, when he and other friends from the paper spent most of their evenings at a bar called O’Rourke’s. One friend recounts how Ebert claimed that, thanks to his film-festival travels, he knew how to “order two Johnnie Walker Blacks anywhere in the world.” But the boozing and the brutal hangovers became more and more of a problem until Ebert realized something had to change.
At three decades sober, Ebert wrote about his experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous, sharing his thoughts on his history with alcohol abuse and encouraging his readers to do the same. He was not just a great writer on film, but an underappreciatedly great one on addiction as well.
In their decades-long partnership, Ebert and Siskel argued on screen and didn’t always get along off screen either — Life Itself includes some of the infamous footage above of the two bickering while trying to film a promo. But it also presents a sharp, tender portrait of two men who came to love each other even when they didn’t always like each other. It’s a reminder that sometimes the people you don’t immediately click with can be the ones you have the most fruitful relationships with.
Ebert sought out films that might have gone underseen, that came from new directors, or that might not have had major stars — and when he saw work he liked, he advocated for it and its creators tirelessly. Martin Scorsese, one of Life Itself’s interviewees as well as its executive producer, for example, talks about how Siskel and Ebert’s presenting him with an award at a dark earlier moment in his career really saved his life.
Indie filmmakers Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart), Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere), and famous documentarian Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven) are among the talking heads who can attest to how Ebert supported them. His dedication to seeking out and staying open to new and difficult work is heartening — proof that sometimes, the most moving art has to be discovered, and that you should shout from the rooftops when it is.
Siskel and Ebert resembled none of the usual television personalities — one was balding and the other overweight, and, as one of Life Itself’s interviewees puts it, they “dressed like clowns.” One of the earliest tapes of Ebert on camera shows he wasn’t a natural when it came to knowing how to speak on TV. They looked like guys who wrote for a living, which is what they were, and that was one of the things that was so great about their show: They weren’t two professionally pretty people reading off cue cards.
The clips from At the Movies (which is what their show was eventually called) as well as the pair’s appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (where Ebert riles fellow guest Chevy Chase) and other talk shows are welcome evidence that the country tuned in to watch two regular-looking dudes because they cared about what they had to say. In our extremely manicured era, it’s a wonderful reminder of how much value that actually has.
After decades of romantic mishaps that Life Itself briefly touches on, Ebert got married to Chaz Hammelsmith at the age of 50. She “saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading,” Ebert says in the film. Footage of the pair together in the past and in the film’s present day, as Chaz cares for her dying spouse, is deeply emotional.
As hard as it can be to watch Life Itself’s footage of Ebert in his last months, struggling through physical therapy and dealing with painful treatments, his attitude remains almost unfailingly great. He’s still excited about seeing movies, and he’s still writing. Cancer left Ebert unable to speak, eat, or drink normally in the final few years of his life, but it only made him more prolific as a critic and a blogger, his website turning into a source not only for his thoughts on film, but on faith, politics, his family, Chaz, and more. Health problems meant that Ebert didn’t have it easy in the last decade or so of his life, but he didn’t slow down — he loved cinema, loved discussing it, and loved his life, which is the greatest inspiration the film has to offer.
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