Life Itself

January 17, 2015
Roger Ebert in 'Life Itself' (2014)
Roger Ebert in 'Life Itself' (2014)

Roger Ebert is the only film critic with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s curious to think that a critic can be a star, but Ebert (1942-2013) had a following that would make any actor proud. He became the unofficial dean of American movie reviewers by virtue of sheer hard work, and through his regular appearances on the small screen.

This documentary was originally intended as a film version of the critic’s memoir, Life Itself (2011). When Ebert died five months into production, director Steve James changed direction, including a greater amount of footage from the last months of his subject’s life. These sequences are gruelling, showing Ebert sitting up in a hospital bed surrounded by friends and family. He is unflaggingly cheerful, but his face is a wreck. Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002 he endured a series of operations until his entire lower jaw had been removed. By 2006 he was unable to speak, and had to have his throat regularly ‘irrigated’ – which is like having a vacuum tube pushed into your neck.

The Ebert we meet at the start of the film has lost the bottom part of his face. His top teeth are set in a permanent smile, his bottom lip hangs pendulously, one can look through his throat and see the pillow. It’s not a pretty sight but it’s exactly how he wanted to be seen. He makes it clear this film must be a truthful portrait, not a hagiography.

Soon we are winding back the clock, meeting the young Ebert in his days as editor of the campus newspaper at the University of Illinois. It came out daily and covered all the hard news topics, with Ebert doing much of the writing. After graduation he worked as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, becoming film critic in 1967. In 1970 he wrote the screenplay for Russ Meyer’s satirical sex comedy, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, sharing the director’s black sense of humour and his taste for women with large breasts. But it was his film reviewing that would establish Ebert’s reputation, and in 1975 he enjoyed the kudos of being the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize.

While Ebert was churning out copy during the day he was spending his evenings in a Chicago bar, holding court and drinking. Eventually he realised he had a problem and gave up the booze in 1979, joining Alcoholics Anonymous. Many years later he would meet Chaz Hammelsmith, the love of his life, at an AA meeting. They married in 1992, when Ebert was 50, and she stood by him to the end.

The turning point in Ebert’s career came in 1975 when Chicago Public Broadcasting invited him to co-host a movie review program called Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel, the film reviewer from a rival publication. They were complete opposites: Siskel was a Jewish academic, Ebert a Catholic career journalist. They hated each other and bickered constantly, both on and off screen.

The show became compulsive viewing. By 1982 it had become At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, (a toss of a coin meant Siskel’s name came first) a syndicated program watched across the United States. As the co-hosts argued on screen, they grew fond of each other until Ebert saw Siskel as the brother he’d never had. When Siskel died of cancer in 1999, after having concealed his illness from his sparring partner, Ebert vowed that if ever he got ill he would hide nothing. This documentary is the fulfilment of that vow.

It’s timely to reflect on the success of the Siskel and Ebert program as we have just said farewell to David and Margaret, whose own At the Movies was one of the ABC’s longterm hits.

David and Margaret owed their popularity to the same qualities as Siskel and Ebert: they were antithetical personalities who often disagreed on screen. Margaret was the passionate one, David the straight man. It’s an irresistible formula. Audiences love to watch two people at odds with each other, each defending their own corner.

This makes it all the more remarkable that over the past decade or two ABC TV has made so many dreary magazine-style programs; so many aimless arty chat shows. It has pretended every arts event is full of wonder, when most are full of something far less savoury. Criticism is the art of separating the good from the bad, and it can be electrifying when done with intelligence, knowledge and self-belief. In a world in which criticism is being usurped by the press release it is crucial that public broadcasting fosters discussion and argument.

The great and lasting achievement of Roger Ebert was a willingness to speak his mind. He was a populist in the best sense – a public intellectual willing to praise or condemn with conviction.

Ebert could be scathing about the movies he disliked. “I had a colonoscopy once,” he wrote, “and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny.” Yet when it came to films such as Bonnie and Clyde, he would declare it “the first masterpiece” he had encountered as a critic. At both ends of the spectrum the method is sound: first comes the feeling, then the rationale. While poor critics write what they think people want to hear, the good ones always speak from the heart.

Life Itself
Written & directed by Steve James
Starring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Marlene Siskel, Ramin Bahrani, Martin Scorsese, A.O.Scott
USA, rated ?, 120 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17th January, 2015.