Life Itself ✮✮✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
As the subject for a movie the life of a film critic would seem about as promising as that of a telemarketer or tax consultant. We all know movie critics are a notoriously disagreeable and sedentary lot who pass a good deal of their lives scribbling in the dark. Steve James’s “Life Itself,” about Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, upends this assumption. Here’s a film about America’s best-known film scribe ‒ from a time when the title meant something ‒ that’s fascinating, engaging, and life-affirming — without being in the least mawkish.
Taken from Ebert’s memoir of the same title, James’s doc opens with Ebert’s SRO memorial service in 2013; it then flashes back to his blue-collar childhood in Urbana, Ill., and works forward to his last days, when, after a grim battle with thyroid cancer that left him mute and disfigured, he died from pneumonia. The warts-and-all portrait that emerges is of an Old School journalist who lucked into the film slot at the Sun-Times and there flourished by leading the charge for such edgy, misunderstood New Hollywood titles as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch.” Ebert — who I chatted with over the years at festivals and studio junkets — was as much a celebrity as the celebrities he covered. The first (and for a long time only) film critic to have a Pulitzer, he was also driven, indefatigable, contentious and, all too often, petty, particularly in sparring with his “At the Movies” co-host Gene Siskel.
Was Ebert a better critic than, say, Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby or TIME mag’s Richard Corliss, who makes an appearance here as one of the talking heads? No. What set Ebert apart was his down-to-Earth approachability, his populist mindset. Unlike most critics, he wasn’t uptight or aloof. Indeed, he anticipated the democratization of the Internet by writing for the film buff on the street. Need proof? Check out the social media tributes. They give one the sense that the people who read Ebert hung out with Ebert.
Covered in this doc are Ebert’s formative years as saloon habitué, hanging with the likes of Studs Terkel and Mike Royko; his infamous stint as screenwriter (on bosom buddy Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”); his late-life love affair with Chaz Hammel-Smith, who obviously grounded him. Ebert’s stint with Siskel on the pioneering review show “Siskel & Ebert” provides some of the juiciest material and sparks a conversation on how the thumb guys devalued criticism in the 1990s. Siskel, erudite and Cassius-lean, was Ebert’s opposite in almost every way. Little wonder they sparred both in front of and behind the camera. James illustrates with outtakes of the hosts trading childish jibes. For me, what defined the two was how they covered the Oscars: Ebert sat backstage in the pressroom, sandwiched between other ink-stained wretches; Siskel hobnobbed out front with the Hollywood glitterati.
James, who lends spare narration, says he made this movie to reciprocate for Ebert’s care-boosting rave of his documentary “Hoop Dreams.” James began by interviewing Ebert in the hospital, and, then, when that became too difficult, continued the conversation by email. Others share similar stories of the critic taking gutsy, sometimes contrarian stands on their early work; these filmmakers include Werner Herzog, Gregory Nava, Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese, who actually wells up as he recalls the critic’s tireless support.
The ultimate cineaste to the end, Ebert saw himself as James’s collaborator rather than as his compliant subject. Frequently from his hospital bed, he uses his laptop “voice” to call for a particular shot. At one point he forces James to shoot the painful insertion of a drainage tube down his neck. It’s tough to watch, but reminds us that, in his final days, Ebert was more of a hero than some of the pretend heroes he raved about in print.
LIFE ITSELF ✮✮✮✮ With Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese. Directed by Steve James from Ebert’s memoir. 115 min. Rated R (for profanity, nudity in feature film inserts)