There was a time when Roger Ebert was just a film critic.
Sure, he had a TV show and a Pulitzer Prize that, to his credit, he never seemed to wear on his sleeve. But to many an impressionable young cinephile in the '80s like myself, was he much more than one half of the TV show Siskel & Ebert (or its various incarnations)? One thing's for sure, he was the confident, corpulent guy you either happened to agree with and loved that week or happened to disagree with and hated that week.
But something happened in the wake of his show's inevitable decline, a decline which, not surprisingly, began after Gene Siskel's death. As my generation grew up, viewership waned ("It's just not the same anymore"), co-hosts rotated and the show jumped around from channel to channel, Ebert slowly began finding a new voice and a new audience in the most unlikely of places: a forum called the internet. And perhaps simply because he embraced it, this little thing that for a while had lived in mostly turned off computers embraced him back. I suspect that when the floodgates were opened - when his writing was no longer read just in Chicago or syndicated columns, but by anyone in the world - that's when he became Roger Ebert, the greatest film critic. Not the most famous, but the greatest. By the time he had literally lost his voice it seemed that the whole internet itself had become his voice, so influential and far-reaching was his opinion on just about anything he wrote about, not just films. For fun, Google that phrase, "the greatest film critic" without mentioning Ebert's name and see how far down you go without reading it. Then notice the search "best film critic after [emphasis mine] Ebert" at the bottom of the page. It's an interesting title since "the greatest" presupposes that one's read every film critic who's ever written.
The exploration of why or how exactly that status was bestowed upon Ebert - a fascinating analysis of the intersection of geek culture, technology and written criticism, I'm sure - is nowhere to be found in Life Itself, the new documentary by Steve James, best known for the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, an Ebert favorite. What we do find, however, is a fantastic, thoroughly entertaining and, ultimately, emotionally draining, straight-up documentary about the life of Roger Ebert that, unlike most biographical documentaries, films its subject at the very end of his life.
Executive produced by Martin Scorsese (who is also interviewed, as are plenty of others film world types, friends, co-workers and family) and inspired by Ebert's bestselling memoir of the same name, Life Itself jumps back and forth between the last several months of Ebert's life as he's going through rehabilitation to passages straight out of his memoir that recount his life in voiceover. (Since Ebert had been unable to use his own voice for a number of years before his death, the voiceover is provided by voice actor Stephen Stanton, who sounds uncannily like Ebert throughout the film). Through pictures, interviews and candid narration, we get to know the young Ebert as an only child born to Catholic parents. At just 15, he becomes a sportswriter for the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, covering high school sports. While working for the paper his father dies. He then soon lands a reporter and feature writer gig at The Chicago Sun Times while becoming an alcoholic who would end his long nights (most of the time) gloriously stumbling out of the local bar.
But this is just the precursor - it's narrative tone almost straight out of a crime reporter movie from the '40s - that one might imagine Ebert writing for himself as prerequisite to the life of a hard-boiled, no nonsense Chicago writer. What happens next, well, it's the stuff of Hollywood legend, naturally, as he hangs out with and screen writes (under a pseudonym) in the early '70s for sexploitation auteur Russ Meyer and his bevy of big buxom beauties and squared jaws and then in 1975 goes on to become the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Around this time, he began to co-host his famous TV show with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel.
Unfortunately, this whole mid-section in Ebert's life is where director James knows he has to gloss over some things to get to what becomes the heart of his movie, namely, Ebert's struggles during his final stint of rehabilitation. It becomes apparent that this focus brings a narrative shift that is unexpected, evidenced by James' attempts via emails at last minute digging of bigger ideas to a mentally deteriorating Ebert. Instead of creating a comprehensive document of Ebert's autobiographical book, James gets forced upon him the unenviable task of documenting the last days of Ebert's life. And for as important, poignant and powerful as that part of Ebert's story is, you can't help but feel like you're re-living it, as it all has already been well documented, almost in real time, with the help of Ebert himself, the internet and the candidness, immediacy and amplitude it offers. Yet, too argue this point too much will no doubt come off as trolling since the subject matter of Ebert's last part of his life is admittedly beyond reproach.
In the process of glossing over earlier chapters in Ebert's life, Life Itself sacrifices the finer points of how Ebert gets from B to C. The trade-off is that we don't really learn how he ends up writing Beyond The Valley of the Dolls and of his relationship with Meyer; or why his writing is specifically selected by the Pulitzer Committee as the best criticism of 1974. There are other conversations regarding his writing throughout the doc so why none regarding this period? As a fan of Ebert, movies and film criticism, any additional insight of both him working on Beyond and him earning the Pulitzer in any type of film would have been enough to send me through the stratosphere. But I get it: This time around, to delve into the former may have touched upon the unsavory and to delve into the latter may not have been terribly exciting.
There is, however, a section devoted to him defending his style of criticism to Time Magazine's Richard Corliss in a famous bout back in 1990 that lasted a whole two rounds of print. It's fascinating stuff as Corliss reflects now on his mind frame back then. The whole segment provides us with some real discussion (and the only criticism!) regarding Ebert's style of criticism, both from Corliss and from Ebert himself. But it's very little discussion.
Where James is smart not to skimp, however, is in showcasing the relationship between Ebert and Siskel. Anyone who watched the show religiously can attest to how sitcom-hilarious some of those arguments between the two could be and clips, outtakes and even peripheral material - like a now legendary appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson - provide the levity needed to deal with the movie's final act. If Ebert's struggle at the end of his life is the heart of the movie, these wonderful reminisces are its soul. More than his words, the uploads of him discussing movies will, arguably, keep Ebert alive forever, especially to future generations with a keen interest in the preserved moving image.
Fortunately, Siskel gets to also shine - if only shortly, but perhaps twice as bright - and not only through the vintage footage. Siskel's surrogate in the film is his widow, who hints at some of the more shaded aspects of Ebert's nature, a couple of times bringing him down a few notches from a film god to more of a human being. She also has the best line, a punch line that ironically questions Ebert's hagiography in his own movie: "Roger might have written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but Gene lived it." Cue pics of Siskel in full swinger mode hanging out at the Playboy Mansion with Hef and pals. So...when's Siskel's documentary coming out?
In an interview in 1979 to promote Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, Russ Meyer called Ebert "truly a Jekyll and Hyde," referring specifically to a couple of things while alluding to the fact that Ebert's pseudonym as screenwriter for that particular film was "R. Hyde." Knowing his penchant for over-exaggeration, it's hard to take Meyer too seriously. Yet, the genesis of that remark is there: the writer of one of the most outrageous sexploitation cult movies ever made wins the prestigious Pulitzer Prize a few years later. It seems that the fates got it right this time as a nerdy, bespectacled, chubby kid from Illinois decides to write about movies and his life becomes as big as a Hollywood movie in the process. No doubt a life that will be filmed more than once...
Life Itself opens on Friday, July 4 on iTunes, On Demand and at the following physical locations: Laemmle Town Center 5 – 17200 Ventura Blvd. #121, Encino, CA; The Landmark –10850 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA; Laemmle Playhouse 7 Cinemas – 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA; Sundance Sunset Cinemas – 8000 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA.