Thumbs up just doesn’t cover it.
There are very few critics, film or otherwise, that had a major effect on me growing up. Of the ones that did, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel topped the list. I grew up in a rural area so I didn’t have a lot of access to film criticism, but luckily I had cable and Siskel and Ebert (as it was called by the early 1990’s) was syndicated on several different stations. By the time I was in my early teens I was regularly watching the show and I found movies such as Hoop Dreams, The Shawshank Redemption, and Crumb thanks to the show. After Gene Siskel died in 1999 I continued to tune in as often as I could, and I came to like and respect Siskel’s eventual replacement Richard Roeper.
In 2002 Roger Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, a disease he would battle until his death in 2013. Although he would eventually lose his ability to speak and eat, Ebert became an even more prolific writer and eventually wrote an autobiography called Life Itself, which was released in 2011. The book was optioned by Steve James (director of Hoop Dreams) and his documentary, which inadvertently ended up chronicling the last few months of Ebert’s life, was released last year.
Life Itself, the movie, is a celebration of Roger Ebert’s life and work as well as an unflinching look at the disease that he battled for so long. It is a sad movie at times, but it is also uplifting in its honesty and frankness. Even in the hard times shown in the movie, Ebert, along with his wife Chaz, never lose their sense of humor and the love between the two of them shines through. The portions featuring them laughing and joking in the hospital and at home are some of the best parts of the film, and add a brevity that is necessary with such a heavy subject matter. This is also a testament to Steve James’ ability to find the heart of a film.
The portions of the film that deal with Ebert’s formative years are also very interesting, particularly for people who might not be as familiar with his history pre-Siskel and Ebert. There is obviously talk of his Pulitzer Prize win, his screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and his originally antagonistic relationship with Gene Siskel, The movie also deals with lesser known portions of his life such has his alcoholism. The film, much like the book, isn’t afraid to show the darker aspects of his life and that is very unusual in authorized biographical films. Not that things get incredibly harrowing in these sections, but it is a very nice touch that a lot of other filmmakers and subjects would gloss over. The most eye opening portion of the film to me was how much Gene Siskel keeping his cancer diagnosis from people, led directly to Ebert being so up-front with his. Ebert wanted people to be aware of what was going on and he did a good job of keeping his readers up to date.
Life Itself is a very good overview of Roger Ebert’s life and his legacy. It contains contributions from filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese along with peers in film criticism like Richard Corliss (who passed away the week prior to this piece’s publication). For a longtime Ebert fan like me, or for a casual viewer, the film holds up. It is a very moving tribute to a man whose legacy will continue to live on, and a testament to the art form known as cinema. Life Itself gets a thumbs way up from me.
Until next time…