Before Roger Ebert, no film critic had ever won a Pulitzer Prize or been awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On his death in 2013, Barack Obama wrote that “for a generation of Americans Roger was the movies… The movies won’t be the same without Roger”. Steve James’ life-affirming documentary paints the picture of Ebert’s long love affair with cinema and charts his debilitating disease as it takes its course in his final days. Unafraid to get close and personal with Ebert’s at times abrasive personality, his alcoholism in his early days, or the crippling effects of his cancer, Life Itself is a stoically honest but always celebratory portrait of the most famous film critic in cinema history.
Following Ebert from his strong Chicago roots, we see him rise up through the ranks of journalism, displaying an editorial aptitude from an early age. Chicago is to become more than just his home – it is to be forever more his journalistic stronghold, and from the moment he takes up the mantle of film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, he begins changing the game of cinema criticism. He is pestered throughout his career to move to higher-paid, more “illustrious” newspapers, but he never wavers. He remained with the paper until his death almost fifty years later.
The documentary finally sheds light on the uneasy Albee-esque catfights that took place between Ebert and his costar Gene Siskel when the cameras stopped rolling on their smash-hit review show, Siskel & Ebert & The Movies. Ebert and Siskel were two giants of their time, both bullish and stubborn, and their relationship was more like feuding brothers than fierce rivals. Together, they established the make-or-break “Thumbs up!” or “Thumbs down!” verdict that became so ubiquitous in movie marketing, but throughout their successful careers, they never ceased to grab an opportunity to outshine the other. In the film, their respective wives speculate as to what may have happened if only they had put aside their differences and come to terms with how invaluable they were to one another.
We see Ebert’s adoration of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and his impressively tight mingling with celebrities of the screen, harkening back to the days when critics and artists would socialise together in the same exclusive circles. In many ways, Ebert was a chip off the old block of old-fashioned critics, but the documentary asks the poignant question – did his friendly association with the stars ever compromise his criticism of their work? A light-hearted Martin Scorsese – who was firm friends with Ebert for many years – thinks not, jovially recalling a wounded response to Ebert’s crippling review of The Color of Money. It was a way of “condemning and helping”, Scorsese assures us.
Martin Scorsese isn’t the only big name to sing Roger Ebert’s praises. Ava DuVernay and Werner Herzog are among a host of other directors and artists who felt personally shaped by his acerbic craft. Even Steve James credits a large part of his success to Ebert, who lauded his first feature, Hoop Dreams, in 1994. It feels as if the entire documentary is in some way James’ way of thanking Roger Ebert for this early praise; he gives the critic a chance to review for once his own life, rather than the lives of movie characters.
Omnipresent in the film of course is Roger’s wife, Chaz, whose indomitable spirit aids Ebert through his final cancer-stricken years. The camera pokes its neck in deep into Ebert’s hospital bed, and doesn’t shy away from showing us his worst days. There are uncomfortable scenes of the incapacitating disease and the critic’s painful attempts at rehabilitation and recovery. Fighting a disease as tenacious as cancer, Ebert knows that his days are numbered, but this only forces him to continually press on with his work. By his last years, invasive surgery has had to completely remove his lower jaw, and Ebert is only able to communicate via a computerised voice system, not unlike Stephen Hawking. Stripped of the ability to speak, however, Ebert does not allow his voice to be silenced. He triumphantly and inspirationally channels his suppressed energy into online blogging and reviewing, and continues to watch and love films until his death in 2013.
Towards the end of the film, Ebert relays how he often invites a close friend to recite to him the last page of The Great Gatsby. It isn’t hard to understand why these passages resonate so effortlessly with him. Ebert relates that he is more than aware of the passage of time – “of its flow, slipping through our fingers like a long silk scarf” – especially in his final years. Like Jay Gatsby, Ebert was a firm advocate of chasing dreams. He believed in the “green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”. And, also like the eponymous dreamer, Ebert had too come a long way to his own “blue lawn” – from a working class small-town boy in Urbana, to becoming a national celebrity and the most renowned film critic of all time.