For millions of people, the lasting impression of film critic Roger Ebert was that of a heavy-set man, looking like an academic — the kind of person who knew all the answers in class and jacked up the grading curves with his ridiculously high scores. He wore glasses and was every school’s top nerd. He also was charismatic and charming in his own way.
For years people would tune into a show, “Sneak Previews,” that starred Ebert and his co-host Gene Siskel as they offered critiques of the latest movies. The show featured clips of the movies being reviewed, and if you were lucky, an intense disagreement between the two hosts on the merits and flaws of the films.
This was a formula that worked for years and added a spontaneity and human element. It also made Siskel and Ebert the most famous film critics ever. But it all was a compromise, because of those who watched these two on TV, initially very few had access in those days to reading their material in print.
Fortunately, via syndication, book publishing and Internet archives, the writings of Siskel and Ebert have been made available, and with the touching and informative documentary “Life Itself,” now in theaters and soon to hit the pay TV and DVD/Blu-ray market, interest may spike in people seeking their print work.
“Life Itself” is based on Ebert’s autobiography and it is a rich collection of history and commentary on the life of a man who was born to write.
Directed by Steve James, “Life Itself” has a lot of footage that is difficult to watch, following Ebert in the final months of his life in late 2012 and early 2013, almost entirely in the hospital. The ravages of the cancer he had battled for years had deformed his face, making his mouth virtually useless. He could no longer talk or eat.
Thus, the laptop keyboard became his mouthpiece, and despite the miseries he suffered, he was able to exude an inner strength, dignity and humor that is inspiring.
Between these emotionally draining scenes, James puts together a biography of Ebert, rich in photos and clippings, along with recollections from Ebert’s friends and colleagues, including some surprising insights by director Martin Scorsese (who along with screenwriter Steven Zaillian served as executive producer for this film).
Roger Ebert knew at an early age that he was a writer, and as a child he published his own neighborhood paper, and delivered it door-to-door.
He was a driving force at his college newspaper and already had accumulated an impressive portfolio of work when he was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1960s. When the paper’s film reviewer retired, Ebert was assigned to replace him. Ebert settled into this niche nicely and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his film commentary.
While he excelled in his work, he also became seduced by the night life in Chicago, an indulgence that led to the realization he was an alcoholic. He quit drinking, and with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous was able to stay sober the rest of his life.
The core of “Life Itself” centers around the two biggest forces in his life — his late-in-life marriage to Chaz, an inter-racial union that made Ebert instantly a stepfather and step-grandfather; and his many years co-hosting his show with Siskel.
Chaz was 10 years younger than Ebert and they hit it off and were married in 1992, when Ebert was 50. Although an only child and a bachelor for a half-century, Ebert thrived as a family man — in one segment, Ebert fondly recalls (Stephen Stanton provides the voice-over in reciting Ebert’s words) taking long walks with his step grandson.
The Eberts’ love story is richly displayed here, with photos from their life together, and especially in the sobering footage of Chaz at Ebert’s side during his hospitalization, not showing pity but a reinforcing support. Even after some procedures that are clearly uncomfortable, Chaz could read when Ebert was ready to move on and continue working.
Also of great interest is the detailing of the Siskel and Ebert collaboration. In the beginning it had possibilities of being a failure. Siskel and Ebert were competitors: Ebert writing for the working-class Sun-Times and Siskel for the powerful Chicago Tribune. Siskel, before marrying and settling down, was a jet-setter and part of the inner circle at the Playboy mansion.
There are some wickedly funny outtakes from the Siskel and Ebert shows, with these two competitive and driven men taking verbal — and often profane — swipes at each other. Comments from others conceded that although Ebert could hold over Siskel that he had a Pulitzer, and although Ebert was older, Siskel seemed to be the big brother in their relationship.
Initially, the show was not offered in the major markets of Los Angeles and New York, and was a hard sell, with two men sitting in a mock theater, and dressed casually (like clowns, one commentator noted). But when L.A. and New York picked up the show, it really took off.
These were two strong personalities and clashes were constant. Both men were coy when asked how it was decided that Siskel’s named would precede Ebert’s. Despite their disagreements, a true bond developed between them. Siskel’s two daughters served as flower girls at the Ebert wedding in 1992.
When Siskel learned he had a terminal brain tumor, he did not let Ebert know, to Ebert’s dismay. It also motivated Ebert, when he became ill, not to conceal it, which is why he allowed his battle with cancer to be widely known.
In the end, as Siskel’s wife, Marlene, noted, Siskel and Ebert respected each other, “and I believe they loved each other.”
Although he was robbed of his voice, Ebert became a stalwart of the Internet and social media, continuing to write reviews as long as he could, and filing a blog up until the final days of his life.
“Life Itself” does conclude with Ebert’s passing on April 4, 2013, and his funeral, but uplifting is that he died at peace with his life, holding Chaz’s hand. And we are left with the knowledge that his writing will be out there for all time. Yes, Ebert had a likable TV presence, but his writing was truly his gift to the world.