STORY WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
Ask people their opinion about the best flavor of ice cream, U.S. President, pizza topping, or baseball player. You’ll no doubt elicit a wide array of conflicting opinions.
However, try asking who the most influential film critic in history is? The answer seems virtually unanimous among cinema cognoscenti and the generic members of the public alike. The distinction belongs to Roger Ebert.
The world lost Ebert last April. Based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, the documentary, “Life Itself,” studies his accomplishments during life and the courageous manner in which he faced death.
As the film depicts, Ebert joined the Chicago Sun-Times back in 1966. Seven months later, he became the youngest film critic for a daily newspaper in the United States. Back then, reviewers were considered interchangeable and their assessments were often published under pseudonyms. Ebert changed all that and elevated the stature of film critics. He became the first film critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.
Although Ebert was an old-school newspaperman, it was in the role of televised film critic that he achieved national notoriety. Starting in 1975, he began co-hosting a weekly film review show, “Sneak Previews” for WTTW, a Chicago public broadcasting station. When PBS picked up the show for national distribution, Ebert and Gene Siskel were reluctantly paired together as co-hosts.
The two constituted an unlikely pair. Ebert was a bespeckled, 300-pounder with a full head of hair, while Siskel was a tall, slender baldy. An only child from a working class family, Ebert was raised by doting parents in Urbana, Ill. He attended parochial schools, then a state school. Siskel was a Chicago native, who became an orphan at age 10. He matriculated at Culver Military Academy, before graduating from Yale with a degree in philosophy. Ebert’s paper, the Chicago Sun-Times was a progressive, populist Democratic-leaning publication. Siskel’s outlet, The Chicago Times was a conservative paper with a history of espousing xenophobic, nativist positions.
This study in contrasts made for great television. Of course, it was further enhanced by the spirited disagreements between the co-hosts, which were peppered with ad hominem attacks. Many wondered whether these displays of animus were real or feigned for ratings. “Life Itself” does a great job in exploring the trajectory of their love-hate relationship.
The film culled outtakes from early episodes of “Sneak Previews.” In them, both Siskel and Ebert are seething with unfettered disdain for the other. However, their collaboration proved mutually beneficial, making each of them famous and financially well-compensated. Their fierce rivalry seemed to mellow. When Siskel was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, he persistently hid his condition from Ebert. Siskel’s death left Ebert suffused with a sense of bereavement, tinged with feelings of betrayal.
It prompted Ebert to vow that if he were ever afflicted with a serious medical condition, he would not conceal it. This decision informed Ebert’s public disclosure of his cancer and the explicit depiction in “Life Itself” of his deteriorating condition. The film includes scenes, which depict Ebert having his throat aspirated and receiving other painful medical treatments. These prove simultaneously jarring and illuminative of Ebert’s considerable courage.
“Life Itself” is the latest work of documentarian, Steve James. It should be noted that Ebert and Siskel actively championed James’ debut work, “Hoop Dreams.” Shot on a shoestring budget, estimated at $700,000, the film had languished without a distribution deal. Then, the television hosts got behind the film. Despite the fact that “Hoop Dreams” wasn’t even playing theatrically, they plugged it on three consecutive episodes of their show. As a result of this unabashed advocacy, “Hoop Dreams” eventually became a critically-lauded theatrical release.
It was not the only time that Ebert used his influence to actively advance the career of someone who he believed in. In conjunction with Siskel, he championed the work of filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. On his own, Ebert touted James Berardinelli, a fledgling young film critic. Berardinelli went on to become the nation’s leading internet film critic.
You might worry that James’ sense of indebtedness to Ebert would compromise the documentary. James makes no pretense of objective detachment. However, despite James’ obvious affection for Ebert, he laudably presents a warts and all portrait of his subject, rather than a hagiography.
This is best epitomized by the frank depiction of Ebert as a whoremonger and boozehound early in his life. He eventually joined Alcoholics Anonymous and quit drinking cold turkey. Ebert candidly admitted to his demons in a column and through various other public forums.
The film also includes considerable screen time with Marlene Siskel, the widow of Ebert’s bête noire. Predictably, she spins their rivalry in her late husband’s favor. In this context, she suggests that Ebert was a bit of a blowhard and, before his marriage, a jerk.
“Life Itself” collects an impressive assemblage of various other talking heads. Master filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, speaks movingly of how Ebert and Siskel were instrumental in facilitating his recovery from cocaine addiction. Detailing he had suffered an overdose and been declared dead, Scorsese breaks down on screen. At the nadir of Scorsese’s career, the two television hosts orchestrated a tribute for him at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film benefits enormously from the presence of Ebert’s charismatic widow, Chaz. The two had met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Chaz was an African-American trial attorney, who had been active in the civil rights movement. Chaz frankly acknowledges how unlikely her marriage to a white man was. Undaunted by societal prejudices, at 50, Ebert married the woman, who he credited with saving him from a life of loneliness. The film captures her devotion to Ebert after his face was disfigured from the removal of his jawbone and he could no longer eat, drink, or speak.
“Life Itself” is not merely a fascinating biopic, it is an emotionally transfixing film.
“Life Itself”: **** R (for brief sexual images/nudity and language) 115 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.