I knew Roger Ebert.
I didn’t know him intimately. I never visited his home and only once did I join one of of his post-Ebertfest-screening revels at the Champaign Steak ‘n Shake.
But as a film critic in the Chicago area for nearly 25 years, I got to know Roger before and after hundreds of movies at the Lake Street Screening room and the handful of Chicago theaters that hosted critics previews. He was almost always approachable, generous to his colleagues and democratic in the finest sense of the word. When the Chicago Sun-Times was looking for a television critic back in 2003 or 2004, Roger recommended me for the job (I didn’t get it). And in the bizarre incident when Michael Bay chose me of all critics to attack for my negative Transformers review, Roger came to my defense in his Movie Answer Man column, even though he liked Transformers. (If Roger didn’t write the occasional review to leave you mystified, he would have been a dull film critic, and the world knows he was anything but.)
So as I watched Steve James’ documentary about Roger, Life Itself, I had to wonder how I would react to the film if, like most people watching it, Roger Ebert was just a famous, distant figure and not the fellow critic who sat one row behind me and a few seats over during so many movies. The documentary finds Roger hospitalized during the final months of his life and several times he is clearly in pain as he undergoes treatment. Did I cringe at these moments because I knew the man, or because, as Life Itself makes clear, Roger was a good man — not without faults, but a good man whose heart grew bigger as he got older — and it is difficult to watch a good man suffer? Probably a bit of both, but mostly because I knew the man.
Roger and his wife, Chaz, picked James to make a documentary based on Roger’s memoir, also titled Life Itself. The Chicago filmmaker is best known for the seminal Hoop Dreams, a film that Roger and his At the Movies partner Gene Siskel championed. James began filming Roger in December 2012, just as Roger is admitted to the hospital for a mysterious hip fracture. At the time everyone thought this was another bump in the road for Roger. He had already weathered the loss of his voice and his jawbone due to a persistent thyroid cancer. A hairline fracture wouldn’t sideline Roger for long, even if he had no idea how he broke his hip.
It turned out that the fracture signaled a reoccurrence of cancer and that Roger would die only four months later. Life events have a way of changing a documentary’s direction. Barbara Kopple’s Shut Up & Sing went from a documentary about a Dixie Chicks tour to a documentary about political dissent and backlash when singer Natalie Maines told a European concert audience she was ashamed of President George W. Bush. James set out to make a film about Roger Ebert’s life and wound up making one that is also about his death. The way James — and Roger and Chaz — handle the unexpected decline in Roger’s health makes Life Itself a deeply moving experience, sad yet ultimately heartening. It is a film I suspect Roger would be proud of. Through his career, and no doubt to the consternation of television executives who would have preferred he and Gene to stick to reviewing blockbusters, Roger was an advocate of documentaries, and now he is the subject of a truly remarkable one.
Life Itself does not dwell on death. Much of it recounts Roger’s biography. Passages from his memoir are read by voice artist Stephen Stanton (who played a few villains on the Clone Wars animated series). Stanton doesn’t imitate Roger’s voice so much as approximate its Midwestern values, a wise decision.
Roger grew up in Urbana, Ill., an electrician’s son with an unusual drive to see his name in print. He journeys from college newspaper, where he was editor in chief, to the newsroom of the Chicago Sun-Times, and he ravenously adopts the big-city newspaperman’s lifestyle of late nights drinking and womanizing in Old Town bars. A few months after his arrival at the Sun-Times, and for no apparent reason, he is appointed film critic, another role he would ravenously adopt.
Appropriately, James focuses a great deal of attention on Ebert’s partnership with Gene Siskel, a television pairing that would make them the most famous film critics in the country, to the despair of more serious critics. A few of them — including the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, interviewed in the Music Box Theatre lobby — appear in the film as talking heads to wonder, even to this day, if Siskel and Ebert cheapened the profession.
Siskel and Ebert hated each other at first. That cannot be denied. Their mutual contempt as they tape segments in a Chicago public television studio is palpable. This stretch of Life Itself provokes a lot of sharp laughter, particularly if you grew up watching the show and remember the great Siskel and Ebert battles and the dirty looks Roger shot Gene when they really disagreed on a movie. As they moved their show from one more lucrative studio to another and realized they needed each other to remain successful, Siskel and Ebert would become as close as brothers — squabbling brothers, but brothers still.
Gene Siskel was an important person in Roger’s life, but not the most important. That would be Chaz, whom he married in 1992. Roger comes to her after abandoning the late night carousing he realized was self-destructive. Interviewed in the film, Chaz admits for the first time in public that she met Roger at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
The devotion Roger and Chaz share seems impossible to be true, that surely James must be juicing it up a bit for the documentary. Like anyone else who saw them together, I can testify that what you see on the screen is genuine. Roger and Chaz wanted to spend as much time with each other as they could, so Chaz became a frequent and welcome member of the screening room crowd. I remember thinking, She must really love her husband if she’s willing to watch Adam Sandler movies with him.
James shifts the timeline from Roger’s history to present scenes in the hospital where the critic’s family and friends gradually realize he will not get better. Chaz remains optimistic — if anyone could will cancer out of a loved one, it would be her — but Roger seems to know better. In one of the documentary’s most heartbreaking scenes, she confesses Roger signed a Do Not Resuscitate order while she was out of the hospital.
When Gene Siskel was afflicted with a cancerous brain tumor that would claim his life in 1999, he kept the details secret from everyone but his wife and only a few close family members. Right up to his partner’s death, Roger Ebert didn’t know how sick Gene Siskel was. Roger vowed that if the same thing ever happened to him, he would make it known to all. Roger was true to his word. After cancer robbed him of his voice and his jaw and left his face disfigured, Roger refused to retire from public view, even though he had to abandon his TV show (curiously, a person not seen or mentioned in Life Itself is Richard Roeper, Roger’s television partner after Siskel’s death).
The burgeoning blog culture offered Roger a new way to communicate, as well as a new audience, and he became more prolific than ever. Movies became only one of many topics as he wrote about politics (he learned his feisty liberalism from his union dad), philosophy and his own health. Always one to embrace emerging technologies, Roger thrived on the Internet. He saw it as a means to enhance and preserve his legacy. He shared with his readers his physical setbacks while telling them he did not fear death.
James shares this attitude of Roger’s, and it remains in our minds during the inevitable moment when Chaz recounts Roger’s passing (James did not film it, thankfully). Her voice chokes up, and so do we with the sadness of the occasion. Yet she describes how, once she accepted Roger was leaving, she put on Dave Brubeck music to carry him to the next plane of existence. Out of great melancholy comes beauty. Roger appreciated movies that did that.
I was fortunate enough to be present at a ceremony where Roger delivers this speech seen at the beginning of Life Itself: “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
For too many film critics, cinema is a rabbit hole down which they chase themselves deeper and deeper, muttering about auteurism and formalism without bothering to look up and see how movies connect to the world outside the darkened theater. For Roger Ebert, a love of movies equated a love of life. That is the type of critic I have always hoped to be.