The Complicated Life, and Beautiful Death, of Roger Ebert

A new documentary by Steve James ("Hoop Dreams) suggests that the only thing critic Roger Ebert loved more than films was... Life itself. Kartemquin Films

The late film critic Roger Ebert is the subject of  Steve James’ latest documentary. Photo: Kartemquin Films

Anyone over 35 is familiar with Roger Ebert. The film critic’s iconic “Thumbs Up” rating system determined for nearly four decades which films we’d see in theaters, which ones we saved for cable, and which ones we’d probably never see at all.  This familiarity makes it easy to assume that a documentary would teach us nothing about the bespectacled and once-rotund Chicago Sun-Times columnist. Yet “Life itself” does just the opposite.

The film begins as a collaboration between two of Chicago’s favorite sons. Ebert was born in nearby Urbana, and was editor-in-chief of the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini during the Civil Rights era. Documentarian Steve James produced one of Ebert’s favorite films, the 1994 classic “Hoop Dreams.” In 2012, many would say, James was robbed of an Academy Award for his account of inner-city Chicago’s bold citizen crime-fighting force, “The Interrupters.” 

While “Life, itself” begins initially as a collaboration between James, Ebert and his wife, Chaz, its path alters swiftly when Ebert is hospitalized due cancer complications caused by his cancer treatment. From here we see a dual narrative develop with recollections of Ebert’s past, based largely on his 2011 best-selling memoir of the same name (and voiced by a spot-on Ebert impersonator) interwoven with the latter-day Ebert who stunned America by appearing on the the cover of Esquire magazine in 2010, a cancer-survivor who was emaciated beyond recognition and missing his jaw.

We learn quickly of Ebert’s accomplishments: An only child and writing prodigy, Ebert would go on to become the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. He’d spend 46 years at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he would review thousands of films and cover, according to Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss, ‘one half of the film industry’s entire existence.’  All of this coincided with his 30-year television collaboration with the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel, and the  “Thumbs Up” ideology. More on that later.

When cancer robbed Ebert of his voice and his jaw in the late 2000s, Ebert proved ever resilient. His eponymous blog became the standard for journalists in transition, and his Twitter fan base was surpassed only by pop stars. The greatest transition however, was Ebert’s persona. Without the lower portion of his face, Ebert’s razor wit was verbally dulled. Now, his smile was a seemingly constant, if unintentional, grin. Post cancer, “Thumbs Up” did not determine a film’s destiny. Instead Ebert used it often to empower and extend his own.

The 2013 Esquire Cover Featuring Roger Ebert turned America's impression of the rotund, witty critic on its head. Photo: Ethan Hill

The 2013 Esquire cover of Roger Ebert turned America’s impression of the rotund, witty critic on its head. Photo: Ethan Hill

It’s difficult to say which of Ebert’s life paths are more illuminating in this film. His Illinois upbringing formed his pro-labor, Democratic views and established him as an empathetic populist. This temperament caused Ebert to literally bellying up to the bar of the Chicago’s infamous Old Towne Ale House, where he shared stories with many of the city’s finest newsmen, as well as some of its more unfortunate characters.

By the time Ebert launched a second career in the mid 1970s as a televised film critic alongside counterpart Siskel, alcoholism, arrogance, and even success made Ebert ruthless, and downright cantankerous. He and Siskel were television’s warring Jack Spratts. Ebert was the portly, verbose bon vivant who didn’t hesitate to slum with prostitutes. Siskel was the lean Yale intellectual, who spent his off hours chumming with Hugh Hefner and scoring Playboy bunnies.

As their program moved from public television to national syndication, Siskel and Ebert became immensely powerful, and subsequently miserable.  “Two Thumbs Up” was nearly as important to filmmakers as winning an Academy Award itself. Yet the two critics felt little respect toward each other. They were paid an immense amount of money to slug it out on national television, and slug it out, they did.

Though both were recognized for their writing and eloquence, Siskel and Ebert's "Thumb's Up" meant the end of modern film critique, says Time Magazine's Richard Corliss Credit: Tribune Television

Siskel and Ebert’s “Two Thumb’s Up” was nearly as important to filmmakers winning an Academy Award.              Credit: Tribune Television

Siskel was a highly competitive and relentless film reporter. He aggressively stole Ebert’s interviews, and harangued the “At the Movies” staff. Conversely, Ebert was equal parts non chalance and perfectionism. He schmoozed, sans Siskel, at Cannes with celebrities, and counted Martin Scorsese, among others, as his close friends.

The head games by Ebert made Siskel deeply resentful and extremely paranoid. He feared that Ebert would walk away from their lucrative television deal so Siskel tolerated the arrogance and threw back what he could. “‘He’s an asshole,” Siskel told his wife of Ebert, “but he’s my asshole.”

While Ebert mastered belligerence on the set and often in his reviews, he remained a deeply generous man elsewhere. He valued his friends, as much as he loved a good movie and the filmmakers who made them. In the early 1980s, Ebert asked Martin Scorsese to allow him and Siskel to publicly honor Scorsese’s career. Unknown to Ebert, Scorsese at the time was broke, addicted to cocaine, and ending his third marriage. He hardly felt like the  “American Fellini” Ebert originally called him back in 1967. The accolade deeply affected Scorsese. “I wanted to start my life again,” he says.

Peers A.O. Scott of the New York Times, and Time’s Richard Corliss also testify of Ebert’s brilliant analysis, fierce devotion, and equally astute criticism. Ironically, it was Corliss who publicly argued that Siskel and Ebert’s concise “Thumbs Up” rating system was destroying the written art of film critique.

Roger and Chaz Ebert married in 1992. Ebert was 50 years old, and weighed 300 pounds when he met the love of his life, his wife says, but his self-confidence was sexy. Photo: Chaz Ebert

Roger and Chaz Ebert married in 1992. Ebert was 50 years old, and weighed 300 pounds when he met his “angel.”  Photo: Chaz Ebert

The true emotional and intellectual turning point came when Ebert, at 50, met and married civil rights attorney and activist Chaz Hammel-Smith. Ebert enthusiastically embraced his new personae, “Grandpa Roger” to Chaz’s three grandchildren. His new bliss was to travel abroad with the children, taking them on garden walks where they’d discuss the view, great books and cinema. The shift in Ebert’s demeanor so apparent, Gene Siskel embraced it eagerly. Ebert himself called the marriage the perfect antidote to what would have otherwise become a very lonely, miserable life.

Which brings the other key transformations within this film. When Gene Siskel chose to keep his own terminal brain cancer a secret until his seemingly sudden death in 1998, a shocked and saddened Ebert swore to Chaz that he would never deprive his family and friends of such information should he face a similar fate. When Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer around 2007, Chaz, despite her own fears, upheld that pledge.

Thus, the pivotal Esquire profile and the launch, with Chaz’s help, of It is said contain some of Ebert’s finest written works, including essays outside of film criticism on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as America’s preoccupation with firearms.

When Ebert’s body continues to falter on film, Chaz is cast in one of life’s greatest and yet oft-unseen roles: the caregiver. Through setback after setback, Chaz is the tireless advocate. Yet when an exhausted and faltering Ebert asks her, she accepts his wish to die and creates an bedside environment full of peace, music and family.

To hear Mrs. Ebert recall it on film, that final transition was as beautiful as Ebert’s “Life, itself.”

Two Thumbs WAY UP. “Life Itself” is opening throughout the month in various theaters nationwide. It is also available immediately on iTunes.