Wish you knew where to start with black-and-white movies (that aren’t super-boring)? Unsure what to Netflix next? FLARE Film School shares the lesser-known gems, fashionable films and cinema classics that every chic pop culture fan should see. This week’s installment: Life Itself, the acclaimed new documentary about beloved film critic Roger Ebert.
Whenever someone asks me who my hero is, “Roger Ebert” is my answer. I get the perplexed face; they were probably expecting a fashion icon or a parent or some other noble figure. Once the famed film critic lost half his face to the ravages of cancer, people would nod understandingly, perhaps thinking I chose him for his fortitude in the face of such cruel disability. But Ebert—or The Rog, as I affectionately call him—was my hero long before that, for well over 15 years. He was the world’s best-known and most beloved film critic, yes, but it was the values he embodied that I admired so much: kindness, enthusiasm, wit, and a truly fierce work ethic. The man could really churn it out. And it was good stuff, too. Reviews. Blogs. Essays. Books. Tweets. He was very, very funny. Even after he endured a number of health crises that took away his ability to speak or eat, he cheerfully continued to blog and review movies at an inhuman pace. Mere days before he died, he declared he was taking a “leave of presence” due to his cancer’s return. Roger would never absent himself from the conversation altogether.
Until he did. He died a little over year ago; I cried at work when I found out, and condolence texts arrived from friends. I still think of him pretty much every day, and often turn to his old reviews the way other people consult sacred texts. I parrot his life maxims, like “never marry anyone you wouldn’t want to spend a three-day bus trip with.” I wonder what he would have to say about Inside Llewyn Davis, or Her, or Boyhood. I try to emulate the lifelong newspaperman’s commitment to craft, his hunger for experience, for great conversation—his love of stories. The Rog left behind millions of words, thousands of reviews, inspiring several generations of writers and filmmakers. But what of the man behind the movie reviews? After reading his work for so many years, I feel like I almost knew him. (I even met Roger once, briefly, at a book signing, where I gave him a handwritten letter telling him how much his work meant to me; he actually e-mailed me back, and asked to see some of my own writing.) I’m elated that everyone else can get to know him, too, and maybe be as moved as I was by an existence of such unbelievable richness, as, after a lifetime reviewing films, The Rog now has his very own: Life Itself, a documentary based on Ebert’s truly excellent memoir. The film, unsurprisingly, has a serious pedigree: it was directed by acclaimed documentarian Steve James, whose Hoop Dreams Ebert helped usher to classic status, and produced by Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian (Moneyball).
James was daunted by all the material at hand. “Roger had such a full and incredibly adventuresome life. We tend to think of drama as having three acts, and it felt like his life has more like seven acts, so how do we do justice to that?” James says. “And then how to cope with his life in what he called his third act, which was his life since the cancer, given that as we were filming it became more evident that his health was in greater jeopardy?”
The film hits the many milestones in Roger’s packed life, from his spirited beginnings at his university newspaper to tumbling into the film critic position at The Chicago Sun-Times, where he would remain for the rest of his career, to winning the first Pulitzer awarded for film criticism. (The film is narrated by voice actor Stephen Stanton, who is so good I assumed the narration had been produced by the Cereproc software that created a Roger “voice” out of thousands of At the Movies episodes.) It also documents his relationship with his fellow At the Movies critic Gene Siskel, which, despite its crackling rivalry (Siskel’s elegant widow Marlene shares a priceless prank Gene pulled on Roger during a flight), is shown to be one, ultimately, of great respect, and even deep affection.
Life Itself celebrates all the Rogers, from the bon vivant who held court at O’Rourke’s to the doting family man who took his step-grandson for long morning walks. And if he was occasionally belligerent or arrogant, well, that was Roger, too. He wasn’t just Siskel’s roly-poly balcony partner, or a Pulitzer-toting eminence with his very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—he also notoriously loved boobs and getting in the last word and staying at the same damn hotel year in and year out, be it in Cannes or his beloved London.
Some of Roger’s famous fans are interviewed, including Scorsese and Werner Herzog, but Life Itself’s most memorable character other than the man himself is Chaz, Roger’s striking, formidable, former-lawyer wife of 21 years. Roger’s history is intercut with scenes from his final months—a hospital stay, rehab, coming home—and some of the movie’s most affecting parts are the simple, small, everyday moments between husband and wife such as their shorthand born of decades together, or the anecdote of how a Leonard Cohen song literally saved Roger’s life. Roger may have been aces with deadlines, but it took him until nearly age 50 to find The One. “People said that that’s what they had come away from the film thinking—they want their own love story,” Chaz says. “Roger and I, we actually were very much in love but I think there’s someone out there for everyone, I do.”
There is a scene where Roger—bloody stubborn to the end—refuses to walk up the stairs upon returning home. Chaz urges him forward, anyway. The moment is tense, as Chaz keeps pressing Roger to continue on, even when he resists. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s not because it seems cruel (it doesn’t), but because she cares enough to push him. It reminded me of how Roger once said that it isn’t the sad scenes that make him cry at the movies, but the moments of human goodness and sacrifice. Somehow, a documentary about Roger Ebert turned into one of the most romantic movies of the year. I asked Chaz about the scene; she was appalled the first time she saw it. “I said, ‘Who was that mean lady? The man is in a wheelchair, and who is that mean lady trying to make him get up and walk up the stairs?!’ But I’m so glad that people understand that he had been in the hospital in the rehabilitation institute learning how to walk again for almost two months, and yet, when he got home, he didn’t want to get out of the chair. I was afraid if he didn’t get up then he would never get out of the chair, so I was trying to coax him and I was frustrated, my frustration was showing,” she says. “And I’m glad that Steve left that in the movie because it was real, it was true.”
He moved toward the stairs after all. He kept going. He kept walking. He kept writing. He kept living. The stories kept coming. “I expected Roger to be candid about his life in the present, because I had read his memoir, which I think is remarkably candid for a memoir. I did not expect him to be as completely open about it as he was,” James says. “I always knew him to be a funny guy when he was on television, he could be quite entertaining, and by reputation he was a raconteur, but I was surprised at his ability to hold a room even though he could no longer speak. He still had that great sense of comic timing, and his inability to speak didn’t prevent him from displaying it.” That is character. Life Itself is a fitting tribute to the man: warm and funny and fair and full of empathy, without sinking into maudlin hagiography.
Chaz says she’s been told, over and over, that many film school or journalism classes were cancelled the day The Rog died, while other classes continued, but were spent simply sitting around and talking about Roger. Not about his film criticism or his lasting influence on the industry, but, rather, she says, his influence on their philosophy of life: “Life Itself is not called Movies, or My Life in Movies: it’s really about life itself, and I think, that through movies, he actually got to talk about life, about empathy for other people, about things that move us in society.”
I ask Chaz what movie she wishes Roger could have seen. “There is a movie that I was thinking about yesterday,” she says. “A movie that Wim Wenders did called Until the End of the World. We loved that movie. It was maybe two-and-a-half hours long, but there’s a five-hour version that I would love to see; it was one of the movies that talked about all the kind of things that Roger and I like: technology, emotions, connections with each other in the world, everything. That’s the movie that I wished I could sit down and watch with Roger right now.”
Life Itself is playing in theatres now in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, London, Waterloo and Victoria. Upcoming engagements include Saskatoon (Aug. 8), Winnipeg (Sept. 12), Edmonton (Sept. 13) and Thunder Bay (Sept. 18).
Read the tear-inducing final chapter of Life Itself—on the meaning of life, and dying—here.