If you’re a movie fan and haven’t seen Life Itself, Steve James’s documentary on the life of film critic Roger Ebert, you’re depriving yourself of quite a treat.
If you’re old enough to have grown up in the ‘70’s, like me, then you probably discovered Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews, when they were giving thumbs up or down on public television. My family, movie geeks of varying tastes, loved the show, and we argued about their reviews as much as they did.
Where Mom and Dad probably saw the show as mere distraction, I consumed it as a gateway drug to a way of life that eventually led me to New York to pursue a life in theatre and film. By the time I discovered the show, I was already a movie junkie, but I couldn’t envision them as anything more than fantasy. What Siskel and Ebert did for me was to take movies as seriously as people take politics or the economy or their jobs.
For a dreamy kid like me, their impassioned feuds over films like Apocalypse Now gave me permission to take movies as seriously as they did. And boy did I.
As I grew older, my plans and priorities changed, but my love for the movies has never dimmed. Whenever a new movies pops up on my radar, I’ll go over to Rotten Tomatoes to see how it scores with the Top Critics. Before Roger Ebert died, in April 2013, I’d always at least skim his reviews to see what he had to say about a movie, trusting him and Andrew Sarris about all other critics.
Life Itself, is an admiring take on Ebert’s life, though there are plenty of rough edges discussed by friends and former colleagues from Chicago. Ebert was, for a time, a heavy drinker, and like many journalists before him, frequented the neighborhood bars near the Chicago Sun-Times, where he spent his career. And when he finally gave up alchohol, in 1979, he didn’t give up on his combative style, which was most publicly evident on the various incarnations of Sneak Previews, where he and frienemy Gene Siskel would go toe-to-toe, resorting to low blows when mere rhetoric failed.
When he was fifty, Ebert married Chaz Hammel-Smith, and the glimpses we get into their marriage are truly inspiring. Chaz’s devotion and care for Ebert are naked on the screen, and it’s impossible not to well up with emotion as she struggles with caring for her husband in the wake of thyroid cancer that ultimately left Ebert with no jaw or tongue, making speech impossible for this man of many words.
To the very end, Roger Ebert shared his ideas and opinions with us through his blog, which he updated almost daily. In Life Itself, we see a man who has been dealt a tough hand deal with his troubles with grace and dignity, choosing to experience life as a blessing and facing each day with two thumbs up.