“Life Itself” (2014)
I was a big fan of the late film critic Roger Ebert. Not because I agreed with his reviews because truth be told, I agreed more with his “And the Movies” partner, Gene Siskel. No, I was a fan of Roger Ebert because he wrote so well. He had the ability to write about a film and make it such a joy to read. Roger had that uncanny ability to be incredibly knowledgeable but at the same time, write the review as if he was just one of audience members at your local theater. “Life Itself,” the documentary telling the life story of Roger Ebert is also able to skirt that fine line. It’s an extremely smart film but at the same time, makes you feel as you are a part of the Ebert family, enjoying the man and his thoughts on not just film criticism but “Life Itself.”
Filmmaker Steve James (“Hoop Dreams” (1994)) deals with the big elephant in the room right at the start of the film. Roger had gone through a number of procedures to get rid of the cancer in his body, which included taking his whole lower jaw and his tongue. At first it is a little unnerving watching him with his lower lip and chin just dangling there, but Roger’s spirit and humor are so evident in this film, that it isn’t very long that you are comfortable with his appearance. He had long come to accept his fate and was determined to live his life to the fullest. The film takes place during the last year of his life. He thought he had beaten the cancer, at a great cost of course, but still had beaten it. But at the start of the film, Roger has fractured one of his legs and has to go back to physical therapy. As the film goes on, we learn that the fracture was not caused by a fall, but his bones had been weakened by the onset of more cancerous tumors.
While the film deals with Roger’s fight to continue to live, it also deals with his remarkable career. One of the aspects that I liked about the film is that it explored what made Roger that man he came to be. When Roger was just a kid, he started a neighborhood newspaper, which he wrote and then delivered to each of his neighbors. By age 15, Roger was on the local town paper and while at the University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign; he became the school’s newspaper editor. The film points out an interesting event in his career at the university paper. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and Roger wrote an editorial that in the first paragraph quoted both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Over and over the film shows just how Ebert wasn’t just smart but could express himself in such elegant ways, all the while never seeming pretentious.
The film covers his early days at the Chicago Sun Times, where after being employed at the paper for just six months, he was given the title of film critic of the paper. There are a number of people interviewed from his days on the paper, and the film doesn’t shrink back from Ebert’s bad qualities. As one of his colleges says in the film; “He’s an asshole, but he is my asshole.” Roger dominated almost any conversation that went on during that time period. As one former bar mate says “Roger was not just the star of his movie that was his life, we was also its director.”
For many early years, Roger drank at bars near the paper late into the night. The film talks frankly about this period and also about Roger’s joining AA to quit drinking. In fact, we learn that Roger met the love of his life, his wife Chaz, at an AA meeting. While Roger was open about his battle with alcohol, until this film, Chaz has never openly admitted being in AA. The film does an incredible job of showing the love between Roger and Chaz. The relationship was quite a surprise for both of them. Roger was convinced that he would never find a soul mate and Chaz, was a proud, independent black woman who had never even considered dating a white man, much less falling in love and creating a well live life together. They were perfect fit for each other, and it showed till the end of his life.
The film blends in some of Roger’s more famous film reviews, letting us understand and feel just how he looked at film and the excitement he felt when he discovered a movie he could champion. The film also does a great job showing us the dynamic between Roger and Gene Siskel, the rival Chicago Tribune film critic that would be forever tied to Ebert. The film showcases that the two were rivals, barely acknowledging each other until they were on camera. The movie goes in depth on the creation of their famous show, a program that early on wasn’t a great success but soon made Siskel and Ebert, with their two “thumbs up,” the most popular film critics in the world. As the producer of their “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies” TV show says “At first the studios helped us. Then they hated us, and finally, they feared us.” The movie does an excellent job of showing the working relationship between the two, showing some hilarious outtakes of their review show. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is how Siskel and Ebert decided everything that they disagreed with while producing the show. Whether it was which name would go first on the title or who would sit next to Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” it was all settled by a flip of a coin.
This is a fascinating film, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, but never dull or slow moving. Roger Ebert was an intelligent man who could express himself so well that he won the Pulitzer Prize; something at the time had never been won by a film critic. As one of his colleagues describes Roger as “The definitive mainstream film critic in American letters.” The film is worthy of its subject and ultimately we come away from the film knowing that Ebert as the great film director Martin Scorsese says about the man “He really loved films.” My Rating: I Would Pay to See it Again
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
“Life Itself” is playing at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema