Roger Ebert is not the President of the United States. He has never starred in an Oscar-winning drama or played guitar for the Rolling Stones. He’s not a junkie, never went to prison, never fought in a war. Instead, Ebert has spent his life sitting in dark rooms watching movies, then sitting in less-dark rooms writing about them. Who would want to read 500 pages about that?
But Ebert’s autobiography turns out to be a great read — thoughtful, entertaining, and emotional. Life Itself is a casual ramble through his life, something akin to the long walks through London and other cities that he describes in some of its loveliest passages. He proves to be an excellent tour guide as he ambles through his working-class Illinois childhood, his early days in the hard-boiled newspaper world, his wild collaborations with director Russ Meyer, and his often contentious partnership with Gene Siskel.
Parts of the book might seem familiar to anyone who’s read Ebert’s blog or his essential 2006 collection, Awake in the Dark, which may account for the haphazard structure and abrupt tonal shifts. But his warm voice holds it all together. Ebert comes across as smart, bighearted, and eccentric as he shares random recollections (his favorite fast-food chain) and relays well-honed anecdotes (the time he trashed Three Amigos! on Carson…while sitting next to Chevy Chase). His encounters with Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum are absolute classics of the celeb-profile genre.
Ebert writes with unflinching candor about difficult subjects, including the cancer that has left him profoundly disfigured and unable to eat or speak. But this is not a depressing book. In the end, writing is what gives Ebert purpose, and Life Itself is at its best when he’s reliving the people and things that have brought him joy. In some ways, his memories have, as the title suggests, actually become his life. Ebert seems okay with that. ”I will look the way I look,” he says, ”and express myself in print, and I will be content.” A-