At the beginning of the enchanting and inspiring new documentary Life Itself, we hear Roger Ebert giving a speech. ”For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” he says. ”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.” That’s a beautiful summation not only of the power of movies but also of a life lived through them.
Ebert was more than just an excitable heavyset guy in tweedy sports coats and owlish glasses who had a thumb that, depending on its north or south trajectory, make or break a movie. He was a plain-speaking proselytizer of film devoid of pretension, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman who bled printer’s ink, and a loving husband. Now, a little over a year after his death from cancer, that man, in all of his complexity, comes alive again in Steve James’ bittersweet tribute to the most famous critic in America. James, the filmmaker best known for 1994’s Hoop Dreams (which Ebert loved), is a Chicago guy. And some of the funniest and most insightful moments in his movie are those shared by Ebert’s old Sun-Times colleagues and Windy City barstool chums as they swap Johnnie Walker tales about their dear departed friend. They paint an unvarnished portrait of a rascally dive-bar raconteur who had an ego as outsize as his appetites, along with a deep well of compassion that carried him through the difficult final years of his life. That illness isn’t sugarcoated in Life Itself. James’ camera gets excruciatingly close to Ebert as he undergoes torturous medical procedures, with nurses suctioning the fluid from a hole in his throat. With his jaw surgically removed and his lower lip hanging like a deflated balloon, Ebert winces in pain before giving his nurse his signature thumbs-up. His heroic grace right up until the end, with his indomitably sunny wife, Chaz, by his side, is astonishing.
Like a lot of you reading this, I imagine, I always felt a powerful long-distance connection to Ebert. (I met him several times on the festival circuit over the years but wasn’t lucky enough to call him a friend.) As a kid, I watched him and his on-air sparring partner Gene Siskel act out their love-hate Laurel and Hardy routine on a small black-and-white television in my bedroom. I hung on every opinion, insight, and insult lobbed across the aisle. On Sneak Previews (and later At the Movies), Ebert brought the cinema to life. His obsessive passion opened my eyes to exotic-sounding European art films and under-the-radar documentaries whose titles I would scribble down and bring to the local mom-and-pop video store. Even if you didn’t agree with him (sometimes especially if you didn’t agree with him), his impossible-to-fake enthusiasm was contagious. He called ‘em like he saw ‘em. It was easy for people to dismiss Ebert for reducing works of art with a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down verdict, like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of a fallen gladiator. But anyone who ever took the time to read his reviews in print (particularly the pans — the man could carve up a turkey with Ginsu precision) knew that he was more complex than the cartoon he played on TV.
Sitting in the dark watching movies for a living can be a solitary existence. And maybe that’s why Ebert didn’t shy away from the spot-light. He wrote more than a dozen books, put up reams of blog posts, and made countless appearances on Johnny Carson’s couch. But even for a man who lived as publicly as he did, the Ebert in Life Itself is full of revelations. Some may be surprised to learn that in the late ’60s he wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for D-cup-adoring auteur Russ Meyer. Or that he was an alcoholic (he met Chaz in AA — something she reveals for the first time in the film). Although Life Itself traces Ebert’s amazing career from the neighborhood newsletter he published as a kid through the 300 reviews he managed to file the year before he passed away, the film is really a love story — his love of words, of movies, and of Chaz. In the end, cancer may have cruelly taken Roger Ebert’s voice, but it couldn’t silence his greatest gift: his ability to speak to his audience directly, honestly, and with empathy. Thumbs up. (Also available on iTunes and VOD) A