MOVIE (on TV) REVIEW: Life Itself

The Siskel & Ebert legendary fights I had read about, and heard about, yet seeing the apparent disdain they had for one another in clips was astonishing.

life_itself-Roger-EbertI had watched Roger Ebert review movies for decades, then saw him on Oprah with his talking device after he lost his ability to speak. I’ve read many of his blog essays, including those about non-cinematic issues.

So what could I learn about him from watching the documentary Life Itself, based on Ebert’s autobiography, which I loved greatly? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

CNN, of all networks, shows documentary movies, I’ve discovered. I recorded Life Itself, then watched it in one sitting, zapping through the half dozen commercial breaks.

Roger Ebert got the film critic job at the Chicago Sun-Times only because the position had become vacant. But he LOVED the movies. As the book begins: “I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

In both the book and movie, Ebert described the drinking he did, to be one of the Newspaper Guys. Nevertheless, it was surprising to hear his colleagues report on Ebert’s escapades before he went sober in 1979. Roger met Chaz, his wife of the last 20 years of his life, at an AA meeting, which had not been previously revealed.

Roger wrote about Chaz and his relatively late-in-life romance, and how important her children and grandchildren were to him. Still, it was wonderful actually see the love Roger clearly had for Chaz’s family, and vice versa.

The Siskel & Ebert legendary fights I had read about, and heard about, yet seeing the apparent disdain they had for one another in clips was astonishing. It was an odd sibling rivalry for Ebert, who, as an only child, was used to getting his way. He was irritated that Siskel, by virtue of a coin flip, got top billing over the Pulitzer prize-winning, older, alphabetically first Ebert. Still, Gene’s widow Marlene believed that, by the end of Gene’s life, the critics loved each other.

An unexpected revelation for me was that it was Siskel who got to hang out with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Clubs. Roger Ebert’s interest in “well-endowed” women was well-known, as he co-wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Roger’s life became much more an open book, especially after Siskel’s death; Ebert did not know that Siskel was dying of brain cancer. That freeing philosophy allowed him to appear on the cover of Esquire magazine, which was, at first, a shocking physical appearance before it became the new normal.

Not surprising was Roger Ebert’s support of new filmmakers, from Martin Scorcese (co-executive producer of this film) and Errol Morris to, more recently, Ramin Bahrani and Ava DuVernay, the latter now the director of the movie Selma, who was touched early by Ebert’s reviews. Watch the clip showing a photo of a young Ava with Ebert.

The film Life Itself was directed by Steve James, whose great documentary Hoop Dreams Roger Ebert had also championed. “James directed [the Ebert] documentary without realizing at the beginning that it would chronicle Ebert’s moving last days.”

I might have gotten a little misty-eyed a couple of times.

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