"And for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us identify with people who are sharing the same journey with us." We lost Roger Ebert in 2013. Without a doubt, he was the best known and most powerful film critic in the country. The new documentary ‘Life Itself’ by filmmaker Steve James gets a resounding thumbs-up. James remembers with fondness Ebert’s positive review of his first film ‘Hoop Dreams’ when he garnered critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival as best documentary in 1994. ‘Life Itself’ chronicles Ebert’s illustrious career but really strikes an emotional chord as it follows his final days battling cancer.
Was he the greatest film critic of all time? Not exactly. Pauline Kael who wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1999 was the most influential film critic of her day. But as one friend of Ebert comments in the documentary, she didn’t have a television show. Film criticism used to be written in a highbrow intellectual essay format. Ebert brought film criticism to the masses. His ability to never talk down to his readers made him popular. In 1975, he was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. The film shows Ebert’s blue-collar childhood in Urbana, Illinois and how he worked as a reporter and became editor for the Daily Illini, the University of Illinois daily college paper. One of his first movie reviews he ever wrote was for the film ‘La Dolce Vita’ published in 1961.
When Ebert was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times, it was about a month at the paper when he fell into the job due to the previous film critic quitting. The doc looks at Ebert’s formative years getting drunk at O’ Rourke’s bar in Chicago. “He is a nice guy,” one of his old drinking buddies says with a grin, “But not that nice.” And that’s the charm of this documentary. It shows the real Roger Ebert warts and all. He had a big ego. The film gets really funny and entertaining when cross-town film critic Gene Siskel gets into the picture. They were bitter rivals. Siskel worked at the city’s other major newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. Siskel was the more polished of the two graduating from Yale University. Siskel was also buddies with Hugh Hefner and the photos of Siskel partying at the Playboy mansion are classic. When PBS approached Ebert about doing a movie review show, he told the producers please choose anyone besides Siskel. It was their heated debates trying to convince each other a film was good or bad that made their television show ‘At the Movies’ so incredibly engaging.
The funniest parts of the documentary are watching the outtakes from their television show. They call each other names like two brothers fighting. The show became so popular in syndication that Siskel and Ebert became celebrities as much as the ones in the films they reviewed. They were frequent guests on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It’s hilarious watching Ebert tear apart the movie ‘Three Amigos’ seated next to Chevy Chase. Chase’s facial expressions say it all. Ebert was great at discovering talented directors but never let a filmmaker rest on his laurels as Martin Scorsese fondly reminisces. Scorsese remembers Ebert crucifying ‘The Color of Money’ and how it made him a better director and to always keep the bar high. Scorsese also credits Siskel and Ebert during a low point in his career. They honored him at the Toronto Film Festival with a lifetime achievement award and he credits it with saving his life.
James smoothly transitions the documentary into Ebert’s most important relationship of his life. The real hero of ‘Life Itself’ is Ebert’s wife, Chaz. They met at an AA meeting and fell in love with each other. They married when Ebert was 50-years-old. It’s so apparent that Chaz’s unconditional love for him grounded him later in life. Before the illness, it shows Ebert bonding with her family and enjoying vacations around the world. When the cancer took away his ability to eat, drink or talk, Ebert turned to blogging and social media. That’s the amazing part of this film too. Cancer was unable to silence his voice. I remember Ebert Tweeting his observations during the Academy Awards. He looked at social media as the next evolution in keeping cinema alive in America. ‘Life Itself’ is more than just a documentary about the most iconic film critic ever. It’s about a man that enjoyed sharing his love for the movies and loved life itself. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/z4SgwBRq-fU.