It’s been a long time since I did one of these. So let’s cut to the chase.
Life Itself is a documentary about the life of Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert. It was based on his 2011 memoir of the same name. It chronicles his early life as a college student and journalist through to his hiring on as The Chicago Sun Times movie critic, his wining the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, the review show Siskel and Ebert, his relationship with Gene Siskel, Ebert’s eventual marriage to Chaz Ebert, Siskel’s illness, and eventually Ebert’s own battle with thyroid cancer. The story isn’t always told absolutely chronologically. Sometimes the flow of events is interrupted with a segment about Roger’s battle with alcoholism or his relationship with the Cannes Film Festival, but the documentary always goes back to the overarching chronological life story.
The film features interviews with A.O. Scott (the film critic for The New York Times), Richard Corliss (the film critic for Time Magazine), various friends and colleagues of Ebert, Marlene Iglitzen (Gene Siskel’s wife), Chaz Ebert (Ebert’s wife), archive interviews with Gene Siskel, and interviews with Ebert during the last few months of his life as well archive interviews and excerpts from his reviews and memoir.
Director Steve James is probably best known for directing the documentary Hoop Dreams (1994), which Siskel and Ebert helped catapult to success with their rave reviews on their show. He appears to have had a good relationship with Ebert. Good enough to get access to Ebert during his final months in the hospital and at home.
The benefit of this is we get to see Ebert at his best (or at least, the best he could be under those health conditions) and at his worst (health and attitude wise). It’s a real testament to the entire documentary that we get a full view of the man. Ebert isn’t made out to be a saint. Far from it. He’s made more human and accessible than I ever thought he could be.
What helps achieve the humanization even more than seeing his health issues play out is learning about his alcoholism (which he kept very secret for much of his life) and his reasons behind writing the satirical, musical, melodramatic exploitation film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). The alcoholism is sad and makes him relateable in obvious ways, but it also shows the social and womanizing side of Ebert. Here’s a man who, before he gave up drinking, would go out and have a good time with his friends and colleagues while also picking up questionable women. Seeing the friendly and party side of a man who, to me, seemed incapable of such a life made him much more sympathetic and took him down from his untouchable perch. The same goes for his reasoning behind writing a film that many think was, to put it nicely, not very good. Why did he write? According to some friends, it was because he liked pretty women and boobs. Again, it pulls away at Ebert’s professional, public persona and portrays him like a man with thoughts, desires, and, in this case, turn-ons like many people out there.
A major part of the documentary is a comparison between Siskel’s health problems and Ebert’s. A lot of time is spent on their relationship and how they both approached their respective illnesses. As their famous bickering would led you to believe, they had very different approaches. It serves the documentary well because it gives us a further glimpse into Ebert the man when we see how he approaches sickness and probable death.
A startling omission in this film is Richard Roeper. He is never mentioned nor is he interviewed. Chaz Ebert and Steve James have said the reason behind this was James was wanted to keep the focus on Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert and not deviate by mentioning who came after Siskel. Knowing this, Roeper’s absence is understandable and makes sense, but you would probably be baffled and annoyed by it if you didn’t know this going in.
Even if you were to remain oblivious to why Roeper wasn’t included, the film is still very good. It humanizes a legend in the film criticism business and shows us just how sad and desperate his tale could be near the end. I walked away feeling sad for the guy, but I was also appreciative of the look into a man I never thought I would understand so well.