'Life Itself' illuminates Ebert and his passion

Posted: July 03, 2014

IN "Life Itself," Roger Ebert says that if you really look at a movie loved by a great many people, you'll find something profound.

This documentary, by fellow Chicagoan Steve James, takes a probing, profound look at Ebert's life and career, in a way that just might encourage you to believe again in the possibility of the American experiment.

Ebert was born in the 1940s, in a small town in the Midwest, to middle-class Catholics, and no one would have blinked if he'd stayed put and been a bookkeeper or an electrician, like his folks.

But Ebert went on to become an international celebrity whose loves and friendships were as diverse as the voices he celebrated as a film critic, a calling that made him a passionate and democratizing advocate for artists of many races, ethnicities, nationalities and points of view.

The catalyst for this, I'm happy to report, was newspapers. He had an immediate and profound love of them. Ebert liked to be surrounded by them as a child, the way other kids like toys. He was eager to learn new words; his parents applauded when he did. With that nudge of encouragement, he flourished - published and delivered his own paper as a preteen, took over the school paper at college, went immediately to work at the Chicago Sun Times, where, fatefully, he was named movie critic almost immediately (replacing Mae Tinee, a nom de plume for any staffer who could be shanghaied into writing a review).

Ebert was a born essayist, and born deadline writer, and merged those skills to become a great newsman and critic, winning the Pulitzer not long after he started writing.

That he started writing about movies in the cinematic ferment of the 1960s was another piece of good fortune (Ebert had many). His advocacy of directors like Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, at a time when they needed encouragement, made those and other artists his lifelong friends. Another friend, though not at first, was colleague and polar opposite Gene Siskel, with whom Ebert created his iconic TV review show, which inspired generations to a love of movie debate.

It's hard to say, watching "Life Itself," whether passion and talent fed his good luck, or vice versa. The film recounts Ebert's rollicking newspaper years, when he stayed out too late and drank too much, which led him at a fairly early age to AA. Even this worked to his advantage - it's where he met his African-American wife Chaz, and the movie's portrait of their mutual devotion is genuinely touching.

The movie provides curiously scant biographical information about Chaz, while offering fascinating nuggets about others, like Siskel, who, pre-Ebert, partied for a couple of years with Hugh Hefner on the Playboy jet.

Boy, was I a critic in the wrong era.

Brace yourself, though; the movie is graphic and almost pitiless about Ebert's grisly battle with cancer. You could say this is where his luck ran out, until you see him borne away by the affection brought on by his open-hearted passion for movies and life.

He made no distinction between the two.

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