Portrait of a Film Critic: Remembering Roger Ebert in 'Life Itself'
By KJ Relth
I learned about film critic Roger Ebert's death via a text message from a fellow film school graduate. I'm not prone to mourning famous figures I've never met, so the sting of his loss was unexpected, immediate and powerful. It was his collection of film reviews, The Great Movies—a gift to me from my mother in 2003-that first made me recognize how film writing could be both accessible and profoundly moving. More importantly, this collection keyed me into a focused and inspired way of watching films. From its special place on my bookshelf, my now well-worn copy was my first real guide to the best that cinema had to offer.
For diehard cinephiles like myself, no discussion of film criticism is complete without mentioning Ebert. Admire him or abhor him, he left his indelible imprimatur on the collective conversation about movies. This native Chicagoan took film criticism—a field dominated by the New York intellectual set—and democratized it for anyone fostering a love of movies.
For 46 years, Ebert was, as the Chicago Sun-Times dubbed him, the "Movie Answer Man"; his column was also syndicated in over 200 publications in the United States and abroad. His great influence didn't stop with periodicals: He published over 20 books, collaborated on several screenplays and appeared with fellow Chicago-based critic Gene Siskel on several widely syndicated movie review shows.
It's difficult to discuss Ebert's influence without sounding hyperbolic, yet acclaimed filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams; Stevie) has managed to present a rich portrait of arguably the best-known film critic in America in Life Itself, a biographical documentary based on Ebert's 2011 memoir of the same name. The film, whose executive producers include Gordon Quinn and Justine Nagan of Kartemquin Films, as well as Martin Scorsese and Steve Zaillian, reflects on the career of a great writer, while thoughtfully documenting his final struggles with cancer.
"We wanted to maintain the forward momentum of Roger's unfolding life, but going back and forth between the ‘film present'—the last four months of his life—and his past was liberating," James reveals via email. "It also challenged us to try to find really interesting transitions in and out of the present, and to hopefully make those transitions feel dramatically motivated and not arbitrary."
Nothing in James' film seems even remotely unmotivated. It's difficult to watch these images of a frail man, months from his last breath, juxtaposed with footage of an earlier time, when he was a boisterous, animated figure spewing insults toward his professional ‘frenemy,' Gene Siskel. But highlighting these differences underscores just how close to the end he was during these five months James was with him. Ebert and his wife Chaz were brave to agree to this film, especially given Roger's recession from the spotlight shortly after losing his lower jaw to cancer in 2006. Yet he never wanted to hide his illness; he turned to his blog as a place to discuss life's lessons, ask questions and begin to accept his mortality. If that striking portrait from the cover of Esquire back in 2010 brought us all face-to-face with the truth about his declining condition, Life Itself makes that photograph three-dimensional.
We witness graphic scenes of Ebert's windpipe being suctioned in his hospital room. We watch him struggle to walk again after a hip fracture. We listen to him speak, not with his own voice (which he lost the ability to use after his lower jaw was removed), but through the jumpy, computerized sounds of his speech synthesis device. But we also hear his old voice, perfectly imitated by voice actor Stephen Stanton, reading from his memoir and from his reviews of some of the best films of all time. We see Ebert, even during medical procedures, enjoying music. One particularly humorous moment is borne out of Roger's insistence on queuing up Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years" before his windpipe is cleared.
"Roger insisted on nothing other than making clear his desire that the film honestly capture his life," James asserts. "From the start, I felt it essential that the film present a fully rounded portrait of Roger—his critical voice, his sense of humor, his faults and hubris, and his place (sometimes debated) in film culture."
Not everyone in James' documentary sings Ebert's praises. Colleagues from his early days at the Sun-Times recount his penchant for women—"weirdo types: gold-diggers, opportunists and psychos"—he would meet while holding court at O'Rourke's Pub or the Ale House, usually while blindingly intoxicated. Several contemporaries insist that his only impetus to pen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with exploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer was his interest in a certain set of endowments unique to the female anatomy. And Siskel's wife, Marlene Iglitzen, is especially frank about Gene and Roger's ongoing professional and personal feud, with the two consistently resorting to "a flip of a coin" to settle decisions as petty as what to eat for lunch.
I asked James when exactly he conducted these interviews, since some of them don't quite ring with the elevated level of respect typical when discussing someone posthumously. About two-thirds of them were completed before Ebert passed away, which, James notes, "was fortuitous when it came to candor. In the wake of his death, some subjects told me it would have been harder to be as candid out of reverence for Roger's memory."
Friends also comment on his marked change after he met Chaz Hammelsmith at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and later married her in 1992. "She fills my horizon," he wrote in a piece titled "Roger Loves Chaz" to mark the 20th anniversary of their marriage. "She is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone." That love and partnership is on display everywhere from their home to Roger's hospital room, where Chaz was right by his side. As the film runs through the moment of his death, her words hit the hardest, but also offer closure for herself and the audience. James captures Chaz's strength and her soul; she tells us, "He was ready to go."
Life Itself reveals a man who loved to write, and an audience who loved his writing. Despite tempting offers from more revered papers, he stuck with the Chicago Sun-Times, affirming his dedication to more populist sensibilities. His closest colleagues attest to the extent to which he cared about the history of the medium as much as he cared about the history of humanity; he wanted everyone to get movies.
"He reinvented film criticism, in a way," James notes. "And he reinvented himself in the wake of his medical travails. I want people to get all that, and also to marvel at his courage and good cheer as he looked death in the eyes those last four months."
Life Itself, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and screened at the Cannes Film Festival with additional footage of Ebert at Cannes, debuts July 4 in theaters through Magnolia Pictures and will air on CNN later in 2014.
Katharine Relth is the Digital Content Producer for the International Documentary Association.