Roger Ebert, a longtime film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and, with his Windy City rival Gene Siskel, host of a weekly television show. | MAGNOLIA PICTURES
BY GARY M. KRAMER | Based on the late Roger Ebert’s memoir, “Life Itself” traces the life and work of one of America’s most famous film critics. The film, on which production began five months before Ebert’s April 2013 death, is a lovely, fitting tribute to a writer the New York Times’ A.O. Scott dubbed “the definitive mainstream film critic in American cinema.”
The documentary is directed by Steve James, whose 1994 film “Hoop Dreams” Ebert championed.
“A film like ‘Hoop Dreams’ is what the movies are for,” the critic wrote. “It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”
James’ documentary on Ebert is not as great as that, but it is an interesting and different kind of film. Ebert is quoted in the opening of “Life Itself” saying, “Movies are a machine to generate empathy.” This is is precisely what James does in his film.
He shows Ebert in his rehab hospital after a hairline fracture developed in his femur. The critic, suffering from throat, tongue, and jaw cancer, cannot drink, eat, or speak. He communicates by typing and is fed through tubes that require suction. These hospital scenes are difficult to watch, but they are necessary. Ebert was as insistent as James that they be presented.
Ebert’s career, which began in newspapers, is the focus of “Life Itself.” “Electrified” as a youth by seeing his byline, he became editor of his college newspaper. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, Ebert, with a dramatic flair appropriate to a movie, ordered that the presses be stopped. After college, he got a part-time job at the Chicago Sun-Times, becoming the newspaper’s youngest film critic. That turned out to be a great gig for him, and for Ebert the films were great, too. Waxing poetic about “Bonnie and Clyde,” his words of praise appear over a clip of the film.
At that point in his life, Ebert was a drinker, frequenting O’Rourke’s, a local watering hole filled with characters right out of the movies. In humorous recollections from his drinking days, buddies describe his terrible taste in women, including the time he brought a “hired” girl into the bar. Presenting a side of Ebert fans and readers are unlikely to know, the anecdotes are highlights of the film. In August 1979, he entered Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober. It was in AA where he met his wife Chaz.
Episodes of the couple traveling and recollections Ebert has of taking walks with his step-grandson are poignant, intimate moments that reveal a gentle nature. And when Chaz helps a debilitated Ebert struggle up a flight of stairs in their home, viewers get some understanding of what the couple bravely faced as he declined.
During scenes of such adversity, Ebert is only slightly combative, in contrast to the downright nasty relationship he had with his TV partner, Gene Siskel, whom he described in “Life Itself” as a “professional enemy.” Not surprisingly, James’ documentary spends considerable time examining the various incarnations of the show the two Chicago critics did together. Testimonies from the shows’ producers are insightful, but well chosen clips of the critics themselves fighting range from entertaining to downright uncomfortable. Shooting a promo, the pair nip at each other, Ebert, his patience exhausted, exhibiting petulance.
A particularly compelling chapter in “Life Itself” reveals the impact Ebert had on filmmakers — Errol Morris, whose “Gates of Heaven” was featured three times on Ebert and Siskel’s show; Martin Scorsese, whose career was rejuvenated after he was fêted in Toronto by Siskel and Ebert; and Werner Herzog, who dedicated his film “Encounters at the End of the World” to Ebert. Filmmakers Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart”) and Ava DuVernay (“I Will Follow”) also share wonderful fond memories of the late critic.
The film succeeds in casting a warm, appreciative glow on Ebert, but does not probe deeply into what made him tick. When asked about why he wanted to share screenwriting duties with Russ Meyer on “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” the answer is “large breasts.” That 1970 film, which Scorsese praised for a sex scene set in a Bentley, was described as a “satire, melodrama, rock musical, comedy, violent exploitation picture, skin flick, and moralistic exposé.” It was something of a defining career moment, one far removed from the pinnacle Ebert reached when he won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first film reviewer to gain that honor.
We learn that he declined an offer from Ben Bradlee to move to the Washington Post after receiving the Pulitzer, and we see the interesting debate waged between Ebert and Richard Corliss when the latter termed Ebert’s thumbs up/ thumbs down TV-style criticism as “vulgarism” and “populist.” Clips of Ebert reporting from Cannes are also highlights in the film.
Still, viewers are likely to want more from a documentary about an iconic film critic, and the questions James emails Ebert as they make the film — about his favorite places in Chicago — suggest there is more to know and to show.
One thing that comes through loud and clear in James’ documentary is that Ebert was not one to hide his thoughts or the difficulties in his life. When Siskel developed brain cancer in the late 1990s, he opted to keep this information private, something his widow recounts movingly in the film. Ebert, in contrast — and how could it be otherwise when he’s compared to Siskel? — went public with his declining health, using that disclosure as a means of emphasizing his humanity and even his populist embrace of other people’s challenges. His public posture does not seem calculated to generate empathy, but it does, especially when we see Chaz confronting her fears and Siskel’s widow reading a poignant letter Ebert sent her.
“Life Itself” shows us how well Ebert lived his life, something he was as dedicated to as he was to his writing.
LIFE ITSELF | Magnolia Pictures | Directed by Steve James | Opens Jul. 4 | Landmark Sunshine Cinema | 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarktheatres.com | Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center | 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com