Film Review: Life Itself

As sad as its finale was, the life of film critic Roger Ebert had as much incident, drama and joy as any ten movies he ever reviewed, and this completely absorbing doc tells his deeply human story with rare truth and beauty.

I came late to an appreciation of Roger Ebert. When—Andrew Sarris' auteur theorizing and Pauline Kael's loquacious stream-of-consciousness New Yorker populism be damned—he and Gene Siskel became the most famous film critics in the country through their television show, “At the Movies,” I rather turned up my nose at the sight of these two schlubby white guys having at each other over their often differing opinions, and too easily dismissing movies with a cursory thumbs up or down.

This was a view shared by such as Time magazine critic Richard Corliss, who wrote an article about the duo's being the death of film criticism, which is featured in Steve James' compelling, searingly revealing doc about Ebert, Life Itself. Filmed before his death in 2013, it takes its title from Ebert's autobiography, which he wrote in 2011, after he'd been diagnosed with the thyroid cancer which caused the loss of his jaw among innumerable other physical challenges. Though he was immobilized, hooked up to hospital machines and obviously in immense pain, Ebert's eyes nevertheless still shine with intelligence and happy curiosity, almost ironically emphasized by the permanent, hanging jack-o-lantern smile with which his disease disfigured him. It's tough stuff to watch, but you learn that, after Siskel kept his own fatal cancer a complete secret from him, predeceasing him in 1999, Ebert was determined that total honesty would be his m.o., as well as that of this doc.

Ebert’s super-contentious but ultimately loving relationship with his erstwhile partner forms the affecting, beating heart of Life Itself. "He's an asshole, but he's my asshole," Siskel once said, and the rocky bond between this intellectual Laurel and Hardy is indeed fascinating, as both men's surviving spouses and various TV producers spill the often deliciously juicy beans about their highly contrasting personalities. Ebert's alone is almost King Lear-like in its complexity, beginning as a humble electrician’s son who fell into journalism in college and wound up at the blue-collar Chicago Sun-Times for his lifetime. In his youth he fully lived out the movie fantasy of the city room newsman's rough-and-tumble life, which included indiscriminate skirt-chasing and self-destructive alcoholism, which he was eventually able to kick. His life changed when he met his future wife, the lovingly supportive Chaz, and, as all who knew him agreed, for the first time in his life he was not alone. The fact that she was black only adds more interest to his life, as does his scripting of Russ Meyer's ultimate boob-laden trash-fest, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an act of hubris on the part of a film critic only matched by Rex Reed's notorious movie debut (and swan song) in Myra Breckenridge. (But hey, both became cult classics.)

Full disclosure: Ebert praised my writing in this magazine on his blog in a 2007 review of Lady Chatterley. I never did get to actually meet and thank him, but that gesture is a testament to his pervasive generosity to his younger peers, as well as filmmakers whom he recognized early, like Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Gregory Nava and Ramin Bahrani, who are all interviewed, as well as a particularly frank Martin Scorsese (executive producer here). He truly loved film and all lovers of film, calling cinema an endlessly vital machine of human empathy. Although the challenges he faced with his cancer and his sheer survival instinct are doubtlessly dramatic gold, I do wish more time had been spent on his actual writing, which is the only quibble I have with this deeply rewarding, incredibly inspiring portrait.
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