Roger Ebert holds a special place in the otherwise fractured world of film reviewing. He, alongside his television broadcast partner Gene Siskel, was the most popular movie critic in America. Viewers of their show couldn’t always match up the name with the body type — the fat one in the sweater or the tall skinny one? — so when they spotted Ebert on the street they simply yelled, “Hey, Mr. Two Thumbs Up!” But behind Ebert’s affable, roly-poly persona was a dedicated journalist who took his job seriously enough to win a Pulitzer Prize. That man is the subject of Life Itself, an affectionate and ultimately very personal documentary profile by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters).
No other movie critic was ever invited to write a film with Russ Meyer, king of nudie-cutie sexploitation. Ebert was a 28-year-old daily newspaper reviewer at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1970 when he and Meyer cooked up the bawdy, gaudy, triumphantly absurd Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a “sequel” to Jacqueline Susann’s trash-pulp page-turner. Before that, the fast-writing kid from Champaign, Illinois was a newsroom regular and patron of Chicago’s numerous dive bars. After Dolls, it was Cannes, Beverly Hills, book deals (some twenty published volumes), and a long-running TV show, in addition to banging out first-run reviews on deadline. The prickly on-air rivalry between Ebert and Siskel was no joke — the two of them actively detested each other, but of course in time grew to depend on the other one.
Ebert genuinely loved going to the movies (he describes motion pictures as “a machine that generates empathy”) and then going home and thinking about them, and had the stamina to try to see everything. He was an early champion of Martin Scorsese, who shows up as an admiring talking head along with critics Richard Corliss and A.O. Scott, and director Werner Herzog, who describes Ebert as “a soldier of cinema.” Ebert’s reviews of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, and the unheralded indie films Man Push Cart by Ramin Bahrani and I Will Follow by Ava DuVernay show a little of his range. In truth, he devoured movies like a starving man.
Ebert spent the last eleven years of his life fighting a series of cancers which finally left him unable to speak, eat, drink, or sleep, his jawless chin hanging down loosely from his face. Director James, who made the doc with the full cooperation of Ebert and his wife Chaz, shows how he was fed, with a tube inserted into his esophagus. It’s hard to watch, but Ebert wanted everyone to know what he was going through. An early adopter of social media and the internet, Ebert blogged until the day he died, communicating with the world from his laptop. We could say that he was the most powerful critical voice in the country, except that Ebert was never particularly interested in power. His goal was the “emotive conversation” that a meaningful film always prompted. Filmmaker James spends a considerable amount of time with Ebert in the critic’s last days, just observing and listening to the voice simulator hooked up to Ebert’s keyboard. What emerges is more than a tribute to an influential cultural moderator. It’s more of a testimony to an insatiable hunger for life.