Life Itself (2014) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: R for brief sexual images/nudity and language
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Marlene Iglitzen, Ramin Bahrani, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ava DuVernay, Stephen Stanton (voice)
Director: Steve James
Review published July 10, 2014
It's only fitting that a man who has dedicated his life to the movies and the people who make them would, in turn, get a movie made about him. And more, the film would be made by those whose careers were given a boost due to the publicity they had received when they were struggling by the person who would become the most well-known film critic in the country. Roger Ebert was more than a thumb that pointed up when he liked a movie, and down when he didn't. He was a person, just like you and me, that you felt you could approach and talk to about your own passion about movies, and he'd only be too glad to share in that passion. And unlike other film critics, you got the sense that he wouldn't look down upon you for disagreeing.
One of those people Ebert helps immensely is Steve James, whose 1994 work, Hoop Dreams, would catapult to success due to the fact that Roger, along with his counterpart on their syndicated television show, Gene Siskel, would name James' film the best film of that year (Ebert would eventually name it the best film of the 1990s). Not only did such praise bring James a lot of attention in the film world he would never have gotten otherwise, but the buzz Siskel & Ebert generated helped the film earn back its budget more than ten-fold, almost an unheard of thing for a documentary in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, when it came time to find a documentarian to tell the life story of Roger Ebert, there was no person more ready, willing and eager to do it than the filmmaker whose career took flight thanks to the film critic willing to go to the mat for a documentary that no one else had even heard of.
Life Itself takes its name from Ebert's printed memoir of the same name published in 2011, and features excerpts read by Ebert near-sound-alike, Stephen Stanton. James is able to cull a great deal of personal photos, home videos, vault clips and out takes, and an amazing variety of other rare material in order to paint a complete picture of Roger Ebert's personal and professional life. The parts that James filmed himself shows Ebert at the nadir of his life, a mere few months away from death when his health had taken a turn for the most bleak. Unlike his partner Gene Siskel, who died of a brain tumor a year after being diagnosed with the terminal disease (the secret kept from him would deeply hurt his professional partner emotionally), Ebert didn't want to hide his condition from anyone, telling his family, friends, and the public about his travails in the most personal of fashion.
Life Itself starts off with Ebert's early days growing up an only child in a Catholic household in Illinois, eventually using his gift for the written word to go into the realm of journalism as a student reporter that would lead to his hiring at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he would eventually become the chief film critic. That position would lead to Ebert's winning of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first film critic to have earned such an honor, and then would catapult him to becoming a household name when he joined with rival critic from the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel, on Chicago public television, and later picked up nationally on PBS. Their fame would eventually lead to striking it rich by taking their show to syndication, where for many years, the bickering duo would be the pre-internet go-to source for what movies to see in the theater and on video.
Throughout the film, we are shown Ebert's long-fought battle with the disease that would, sadly, take his life, his throat cancer, which would leave the critic without a jaw or much of a throat, and completely without a voice. Ebert could still write, which he would do with a passion, and he could still be heard thanks to text-to-speech technology. Ebert's final months have been captured by Steve James, who has been given an extraordinary amount of access to interview Ebert and his family, including his beloved and grief-stricken wife Chaz, a woman he met at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, and who has stood by her husband's side through sickness and in health -- alas, mostly an inordinate amount of heart-wrenching sickness. Nearly all of these interviews take place in the hospital he would eventually die in, and shows a great deal of emotional and physical pain and endurance, but also a great deal of hope. Ebert is a fighter, seemingly running on love of his family to get him through when he himself would have given up long, long ago.
Given the nature of the medical procedures Ebert must go through due to cancer of his thyroid and salivary glands, and the fact that he is missing nearly every organ between his nose and clavicle, Ebert's condition can be particularly difficult to watch, especially when the rest of the film shows him in the happy and healthy prime of his life. It's especially heartbreaking to note that he would never live to see the end of the tribute made in his honor. And Ebert is all about showing the truth about who he is, not wanting to hide anything about his ailments, or his personal and professional flaws. We learn of his alcoholism, his dabbling with prostitutes, his occasionally bitter and jealous spats with Gene Siskel, and his enormous hunger for attention. It's actually amazing how this man with a seemingly boundless ego could be so willing to be shown in such an unflattering light in his very own tribute. As one of his close friends states in the film, "He was nice. But he wasn't that nice."
I won't make any bones about it, as a film critic myself. Of the people I've never met, there's perhaps no one who has influenced me more in my pursuit of the passion of films and writing than Roger Ebert. From the very first time I saw him on television with Gene Siskel, to his books, to his eventual web site, I have followed Ebert closely, and even though I might occasionally disagree with his assessments, I have always found every opinion he shared to be fascinating, and only fueled my own passion to continue as a film lover and film critic. Life Itself brought me to tears, and not just on one occasion, and not just because of the tragedy of his death. The tears mostly came from seeing the sheer about of joy and love he managed to bring to so many people, whether they were people who read his words, people who were helped by his praise, or people who he loved unconditionally in his life who loved him just as much in return.
Life Itself isn't really about a man's death so much as a celebration of his life, and of the life he breathed into film criticism, and indeed that of cinema itself. This is as fitting a eulogy to his memory of the man as could have ever been given, and even through his personal heartbreak, it allows us to reflect on what (and most importantly, whom) we should celebrate in our own lives. It's my greatest pleasure as a film critic to give this beautiful, profoundly sad, but ultimately cathartic tribute to a man I greatly admire an enthusiastic "thumbs up."
©2014 Vince Leo