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Ebert’s Legacy Lives on in ‘Life Itself’

| Tuesday, September 9, 2014

life-itself-graphic-WEBKeri O'Mara
I’ll admit, I was a little intimidated upon being tasked with writing a review of “Life Itself,” a documentary about Roger Ebert, one of the most popular and influential film critics of all time. On top of that, the film was a semi-autobiographical account based on Ebert’s memoir of the same title. Nevertheless, I’ll try to do the great critic justice.

Set to a smooth soundtrack of drawn out piano and horn lines, “Life Itself” delves into Roger Ebert’s past, looking at both his messy personal life and his incredibly successful career. An only child from Urbana, Ill., Ebert recognized his talent at a young age and once wrote, “I can write, I just always could. On the other hand, I flunked French five times.” After attending college at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Ebert became the Chicago Sun Times’ film critic and was the youngest daily film critic in America. As his critiques gained popularity, Ebert began appearing on television and eventually co-hosted “Sneak Previews” with Gene Siskel, a film critic for the Chicago Tribune.

While Ebert’s career flourished, his personal life was lacking. Bruce Elliot, an old friend of Ebert’s, stated “Roger had probably the worst taste in women of any man I’ve ever known. They were either gold diggers, opportunists or psychos.” Ebert spent a lot of time in bars, perfectly aware of his drinking problem. Eventually Ebert vowed to stop drinking and met his wife, Chaz, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The fact that all the commentary in this documentary comes from Ebert’s friends and family gives us a biased and romanticized point of view of the critic, but this is to be expected. He had a subtle, self-deprecating sense of humor, he was a very talented writer, he had a great relationship with his wife, etc. While all of this was true, he wasn’t a particularly warm or friendly person, and this fact is mostly glossed over in the film. I say mostly because there are a few moments where his arrogant and stubborn side is pointed out.

After leaving “Sneak Previews,” Ebert and Siskel co-hosted a show called “At the Movies” (originally “Siskel & Ebert”). The two could not have been more different and often found themselves in heated debates over the quality of movies they’d reviewed. Aside from films, the two could hardly agree on anything and often resorted to coin tosses to make decisions. Ebert was incredibly bitter about the fact that the show was called “Siskel & Ebert” rather than “Ebert & Siskel,” and wanted the title to alternate names each week (this, of course, never happened). The duo’s relationship eventually morphed into a deep respect for one another, and they came to be great friends. Siskel said of Ebert: “He’s an asshole, but he’s my asshole.”

“Life Itself” does a nice job of depicting different aspects of Ebert’s life, with commentary from his wife, friends and coworkers. Ebert spent the last decade of his life battling cancer, and multiple surgeries and infections left him unable to eat, speak or drink. He was fed through a G-Tube and communicated by typing messages that an automated voice would speak. The film is definitely a tearjerker, and director Steven James does a beautiful job of showing Ebert’s determination and stamina even while his body shut down. At one point, Ebert types, “I may have things to be depressed about, but I am not depressed.” He was happy with how his life turned out, and he didn’t let his physical deterioration ruin his view on, well, life itself.

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