The day before film critic Roger Ebert learned that he was gravely ill – and exactly five months before his death on April 4, 2013 – he and his wife Chaz met with documentary director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters”) to discuss making a film based on his memoir, “Life Itself.”
The next day, Ebert landed in the hospital, determined to persist even though he correctly surmised he wouldn't live to see the finished film.
Ebert’s reviews combined life experience – not always from the most upstanding corners of society and culture – with a joyous celebration of cinema and humanity in all its manifestations.
At the Chicago Theater on July 15, 2005, he put it this way:
The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. 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 the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
Wonderful stories abound. James shows sides of the man that might surprise those who have followed his work over the years – the kid who flunked French five times, yet got a job at the Chicago Tribune to became America’s youngest movie reviewer; the first film critic to win a Pulitzer; the annual pilgrimage to Cannes; the knock-down, drag-out shows with his lifetime TV partner Gene Siskel, who died of brain cancer at the age of 53.
Several innocent bystanders and co-conspirators chime in – including directors Werner Herzog, Rahan Bahrani and Martin Scorsese. We also hear from critics A.O. Scott (New York Times), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) and Richard Corliss (Time Magazine), who points out, “He’s (Ebert) been writing for half the history of feature films.”
The issue of critics being too close to their subjects is also addressed. Scorsese talks about how Ebert was the first reviewer to recognize his debut film, “Who’s That Knocking at my Door” (1967). After screening “Mean Streets” (1973), Ebert predicted Scorsese could become “the American Fellini” within a decade.
They became friends over the years, but as much as Ebert admired the director, he didn’t flinch from calling “The Color of Money” (1986) the disappointment that it was.
We learn more about one of the most baffling episodes of Ebert’s career: his involvement with soft-core nudie producer/director Russ Meyer, the man who enlisted the aspiring critic to write a screenplay for the delightfully cheesy “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970) – not to mention the original stories for “Up!” (1976) and “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens” (1979).
Everyone seems to agree on at least two points: 1) Ebert loved Meyer’s “Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!” (1965) and 2) He shared Meyer’s penchant for buxom vixens with perpetually bouncing bosoms.
More in tune with the Roger Ebert most of us were familiar with was his relationship with the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder Colorado, where he was the longest running panelist in its history. One of the highlights for CWA film buffs was his three-day, frame-by-frame analysis of cinema classics like “Citizen Kane” (1941), “The Third Man” (1949) and “In Cold Blood” (1967).
Yet alcohol addiction almost derailed his career. In August 1979, he walked away from the bottle for good. Chaz talks about how she met Roger at an A.A. meeting.
Another great story most film fans know something about – the Siskel-Ebert TV shows – are dealt with at length. When Gene Siskel joined the Sun-Times, they were not exactly close friends – in fact, they didn’t speak for five years. When approached to work together on a new TV show called “Sneak Previews” that would feature two film critics, neither wanted to work with the other. It was a great match of a decidedly odd couple.
Oh, and if you ever wondered why the show was called “Siskel and Ebert” instead of “Ebert and Siskel,” you’ll hear the answer in “Life Itself.”
With their own nationally televised show and regular appearances on Oprah, Letterman and Carson, they had achieved rock-star status. During one of their most notorious Tonight Show appearances, Ebert trashed Chevy Chase’s “Three Amigos” (1986) – while scrunched up on the guest couch next to the squirming Saturday Night Live alumnus.
“Life Itself” isn’t perfect. The film begins to feel like it’s running a little long about three-quarters in; one of the tube-feeding scenes could have been trimmed. Not surprising that James struggled with this, given his admiration for his subject – cutting footage for such a personal film could not have been easy. In the end, Chaz’s (and her children from a previous marriage) account of letting go is touching and unforgettable.
Anyone who has ever discovered a special movie or director based on an Ebert four-star, thumbs-up recommendation should go to the theater and see “Life Itself. Just don’t be surprised to find Roger Ebert's spirit occupying that seemingly empty aisle seat.
See playdates and locations for “Life Itself” HERE.
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