Roger Ebert is a household name. Both hardcore film aficionados and the casual moviegoer recognize him. He, along with Gene Siskel, made ‘two thumbs up’ the standard rating system for many years. And yet, for all that Roger Ebert has done for film critique, and film in general, he aptly named his 2011 memoir Life Itself. For Roger, it was life that was so meaningful and important; it was life itself that kept him going. In 2011, director Steve James (who directed the excellent Hoop Dreams, of which Roger Ebert highly praised) announced he would be adapting the memoir into a documentary, and thanks to crowdsourcing through Indiegogo, as a backer I got to stream the film the day it screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
Life Itself touches on Ebert’s life, from his role as editor of his university paper, to working at the Chicago Sun Times where he won the Pulitzer Price for Criticism, as well as his work with film critic Gene Siskel on the variously titled At the Movies programs. But interwoven between the story of Ebert’s rise to prominence are when we see him at his most vulnerable and human- during Steve James’ multiple trips to the hospital. Near the end of his life, Ebert was battling cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, resulting in much of his chin and throat removed- his ability to speak replaced by a computer that talked in cold, monotonic syllables. Yet his humor and wit remained, albeit expressed through hand gestures or the staccato-like voice of his laptop. His determination to fight was obviously tiring, and as Steve James’ correspondence continues throughout the film, Roger’s responses become shorter and take longer to arrive. The rotund, jovial man we have come to admire is instead seen slowly withering away; something very difficult to watch.
But so much of Life Itself is a celebration of life. A bachelor most his life, Roger eventually found love in Chaz, whom he married at 50. It is her love that keeps him fighting; her positive outlook that keeps him determined. His work as a critic and his love/hate relationship with Gene Siskel are discussed, along with more macabre subjects such as death (apparently Roger was fascinated by it). He spent most of his life doing what he loved best- writing about film. And after losing his ability to speak, his blog became his voice, where he wrote, not only about film, but any subject that was on his mind. Gregarious and larger than life, Roger enjoyed life to the fullest, up to the very end.
As someone who grew up reading his reviews and watching Siskel and Ebert At the Movies, it was special to get a peak inside Roger’s life (albeit largely towards the end of it). Every year we learn of film celebrities dying, many which come as a shock, but I can honestly say that none have affected me more than when I learned of Roger Ebert’s passing. After reading scores of his reviews and many of his books, my appreciation for film grew. Thus his passing was met with sadness, as I felt I had personally lost a friend.