How fitting that America’s most important movie critic has become the subject of a fine movie himself. Roger Ebert was a great populist — he would watch and engage with mainstream fare that highbrows dismissed out of hand — and a superb popularizer, translating his responses to art cinema in terms any newspaper reader could grasp.
Ebert, who died last year at 70, was wonderful as a champion of work he believed in. His enthusiasm for the basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams” made an event of a film that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. And he was terrific at castigating schlock. Among his many criticism collections were such titles as “Your Movie Sucks,” “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” and “A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length: More Movies That Suck.”
I think he would have appreciated “Life Itself,” a sensitive biographical tribute by Steve James (the Chicago filmmaker whose work on “Hoop Dreams” Ebert so admired). It is an account of the final months of Ebert’s life, meshed with his life story.
James shows us the young Roger, an only child so precocious that his father thought he should be a professor. The leap from running the Daily Illini student newspaper at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, to reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966 was natural evolution. Fate then brilliantly created an opening for the newspaper’s film critic. He brought to the job the questioning attitude and work ethic of a hungry beat reporter.
“Life Itself” is also a poignant, unsparing account of Ebert’s cancer and the related illnesses he battled. A sequence showing his airway being suctioned clean is impossible to watch without wincing. The following day he sent James an e-mail, congratulating him on capturing the truth about his condition.
“Life Itself” marks the milestones in Ebert’s journey: the first Pulitzer awarded for movie criticism, the successful, adversarial TV run alongside Siskel (with hilarious bickering outtakes), his decision to stop drinking in 1979, his 1992 marriage to his wife, Chaz. After a decade on the job he was a celebrity as famous as most of the faces on the screen. “Life Itself” also recalls Ebert’s sole excursion into filmmaking, as screenwriter for skin-king Russ Meyer’s 1970 horror-exploitation-musical “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” A colleague who reviewed it for the Sun-Times explains that he gave the wretched film three stars, but on a new scale of 10.
Ebert, who lost the ability to speak in 2006, is heard here in old footage, or through the computer program that spoke his typed entries. Steven Stanton reads excerpts from Ebert’s autobiography in a voice that could belong to Ebert’s twin.
There are testimonials from drinking buddies and renowned artists. Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese offer grateful tribute for raising their profile and encouraging them through hard times.
It mattered nothing to Ebert if a film cost $50,000 or $150 million. He was receptive to meaning and beauty — or hollowness — whatever the packaging. I think he would have set aside his ego and praised “Life Itself” for accurately summing up the life of a complicated man.