by Kathie Smith
Regardless of what you thought of Roger Ebert when he was alive—and opinions swing wildly from lionization to revilement--Life Itself, Steve James’ now posthumous testament on arguably the public representative for film criticism, effortlessly peels away any subjectivity about his persona. Presenting Ebert with unwavering candor, Life Itself, borrowing the name of Ebert’s 2011 memoir, embraces his flaws, tenacity, hubris and humility in an effective survey of his life. Like many of James’ other documentaries (Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The Interrupters), Life Itself is created as a collaboration rather than a doctrine on its subject. Perhaps without even knowing it, this biographical documentary becomes the decisive litmus test on Ebert’s proclamation that the movies are machines that generate empathy.
Director: Steve James
Producers: Garrett Basch, Steve James, Zak Piper
Cinematographer: Dana Kupper
Editors: Steve James, David E. Simpson
Music: Joshua Abrams
Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, Marlene Siskel, A.O. Scott
Premiere: January 19, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 4, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Although this movie covers Ebert’s personal and professional history, it is anchored by his physical condition in his final year, unable to speak and missing his lower jaw. In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer that eventually went on to afflict his salivary gland and his right jaw. While fighting his illness (including a burst carotid artery which, by all counts, he was lucky to survive) he was determined to be publically open and honest about medical situation with his friends and colleagues—something of a vow after his friend, partner and nemesis Gene Siskel died from complications of a brain tumor, a diagnosis that was kept private. But Ebert’s physical deterioration was profound and a little bit haunting, especially if you grew up watching him on At the Movies. Life Itself isn’t so much confrontational about Ebert’s disabilities as it is forthcoming in portraying his physical and emotional pain in the later months of his life, punctuated by humor and joy communicated through his always-present laptop.
The larger backdrop is drawn by telling the narrative of Ebert’s life from his rowdy and ostentatious journalistic beginnings to his well known on screen sparring with Siskel. Ebert was first and foremost a newspaper man, carving out his talents as reporter and editor for the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois augmented with tales of essays and decisions that spoke beyond the self-assuredness (and ego) of your average college kid. Working as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times while pursuing his PhD at the University of Chicago, Ebert was fatefully handed the open position of movie critic. His early career at the Sun-Times was one of debauchery: booze, prostitutes, and a rock star lifestyle that included self-indulgent collaborations with Russ Meyer. (One of the funniest bits in Life Itself comes when Martin Scorsese attempts to comment on the quality of the Ebert/Meyer project Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; Scorsese stammers and dramatically says “It was beyooooond….”) Of course, stacked on top of the late night bar haunts was a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, which Ebert won in 1975 fueling his swagger.
The unexpected straight story on Ebert’s early years generates an explanatory narrative of a movie critic who became a household name—a driven and self-centered force to behold. As one of his colleagues at the Sun-Times says, “He was a nice guy, but not that nice.” Ebert’s competitive spirit found the perfect partner in Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, creating a relationship of love-hate if there ever was one. Siskel and Ebert first collaborated on the Chicago public television show Sneak Previews and then later, because their cat-and-dog chemistry worked, went into syndication with the hugely popular At the Movies. The television show sealed both men’s fates as two of the most recognizable movie critics then and now, but it is also very likely that their combative ambitions pushed both them to excel. It was their smiling hostility that would uncomfortably flair that made the show all the more interesting. Behind the scenes it was probably more of a struggle, and Life Itself gives a brief glimpse of the antagonism that was not necessarily just fun and games. Sadly, as implied in the movie, Siskel’s sudden passing never gave them a chance to reconcile their profession animosity for what was likely mutual respect and fondness.
Life Itself subtly paints a portrait of an ego that softened from life’s lessons—recovering from alcohol addiction, meeting and marrying his wife Chaz, dealing with Siskel’s untimely death, and facing the battle with cancer—that also remained as resolute and steely as ever. Even from the hospital bed, Ebert insists on being the master of his reality (as much as possible), even making unsolicited demands for the production of Life Itself. But watching his physical deterioration and emotional frustration, which James films with clear eyed compassion, is a horrifying reminder of the body’s limitations despite intellectual determination with Ebert’s flesh, blood, and humility impossible to ignore. After a brief respite at home, Ebert health takes a turn that James documents through their email correspondence. James is still eager to pepper him with questions, but Ebert’s fatigue limits his ability and reduces him to one sentence responses. And as we all know now, he died only two days after stating he was taking a leave from his website.
Ebert’s death from the outside seemed slow and eventual, but Life Itself shows something very different and far more inspiring—a person who squeezed as much as he could out life until the very last moments. James includes all the trappings you might expect in a biographical documentary in the form of archive material and talking head testimonials, but it is almost perfectly synced with the humanity of Ebert’s final months alive. The by-the-numbers approach will have a far greater appeal to those familiar with and interested in Ebert (which assumes a pretty large demographic). Steve James may never eclipse the simple grandeur of Hoop Dreams (a movie Ebert championed), but he never fails to bring a much-needed sensitivity to the world of American documentary filmmaking. And for Life Itself and Roger Ebert, that sympathy is a timely and ideal fit.