REVIEW: Life Itself

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

I’ve been covering TIFF since the ‘80s and in all that time, there’s only one film critic that people have asked me about—whether I’d met him and what he was like. That was Roger Ebert. His television show At the Movies, which he co-hosted with Gene Siskel from the ‘70s to the late ‘90s had made Ebert internationally famous. It didn’t hurt that he’d won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism and that his compulsively readable reviews were syndicated in over 200 newspapers at the height of his acclaim. But what people seemed to like the most about Ebert was his guileless mid-American face and endless passion for film. He was the nerdy guy next door whose opinions you could trust completely—or disagree with vociferously. A man of the people and, as the French would say, un homme du cinema.

Now, Roger Ebert is the subject of a documentary feature, Life Itself, directed by Steve James, whose Hoop Dreams is a contemporary doc classic, and co-produced by the legendary Martin Scorsese. Rest assured, bios of film critics are hardly about to flood the market but Ebert’s fame and unique life makes him a deserved subject. James began to document Ebert’s life just when he went into a sharp health decline, which led to hospitalization for months. The director took the opportunity to review footage of Ebert’s life and TV career, interview old friends, film critics and his wife Chaz.

James’ film is structured around scenes showing Ebert’s futile attempts to recover once again from the cancer of the thyroid and salivary gland that he first contracted in 2002 while his working life unfolds through flashbacks edited from archival footage and in-depth interviews conducted as the beloved film critic was slowly passing away.

That Ebert was a born journalist becomes abundantly clear in James’s doc. His ascendency to the post of film critic at the famous and popular Chicago Sun-Times, where he wrote reviews and lengthier essays from 1967 to his death in 2013, was astonishingly quick. Ebert’s writing impressed colleagues and audiences immediately. James’ film picks up pace when Ebert begins to work with Siskel, his rival critic at the Chicago Tribune. The lively rapport between the two is shown through many clips of the duo sparring over the films they reviewed each week. Highly respected critics Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum are brought in to gently attack the duo’s thumbs up/thumbs down criticism. Clearly, it was a dumbing down approach that other critics hated but it did make Ebert and Siskel famous and relatively wealthy.

Ebert’s private life is shown in detail. He was a heavy drinker in his youth and a bit of a womanizer. But once he joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979, Ebert’s life changed—particularly when he met Chaz, the African-American lawyer, whom he married when he was 50. Their life together (accompanied by Chaz’s kids) seems idyllic—but Ebert’s path became bumpier when Siskel died in 1999 and grew worse when he was diagnosed with cancer. In 2006, Ebert underwent surgery of his lower jaw, which caused him to lose his voice and ability to eat or swallow properly.

James’ doc demonstrates what a fighter Ebert was: he continued to write and work almost to the day he died. Life Itself is a heartfelt look at Ebert and you won’t find many reviewers willing to critique the film at all. It is a bit too long and repetitive and Siskel could have been given a fairer shake. And we certainly could have found out more about the most bizarre part of Ebert’s bio—his work as scriptwriter for the notorious “girlie” director Russ Meyer.

But, all in all, this is a fine film, worthy of Ebert. Oh, and did I know Ebert? A bit. I saw and talked to him in line-ups for films over the years at TIFF. He was, as the Brits say, “full value”: friendly, opinionated and funny. A film critic par excellence.

For more on the films Steve James:
Game Changer – on the enduring legacy of Hoop Dreams
Kartemquin Films at 45