Two Thumbs Up for ‘Life Itself’: Film Critic Roger Ebert’s Memoir Becomes A Documentary Film

Author: Bill Dudley

Ever meet someone that you just love the minute you meet them?

That doesn’t happen very often, but it did the other day when I met Chaz Ebert. Chaz was married to film critic Roger Ebert for over 20 years.

Although Roger succumbed last year after a long battle with cancer, his legacy is still very much alive, primarily due to Chaz. The two of them were one of the premier couples in their hometown of Chicago.

Although a serious journalist and screenwriter,Roger came to fame as a film critic, the first of his kind to win a Pulitzer Prize for Film Criticism.

The famous phrase “two thumbs up” was originated by Roger, and his longtime associate Gene Siskel. The two were both film critics for competing Chicago newspapers. In the late 1970’s, PBS wanted to hire them both for a film review show, called Sneak Previews.  Various incarnations (and titles) of what I mainly recall as Siskel & Ebert At The Movies ran for over two decades until Siskel’s death in 1999.

This was a spirited and fiery competitive show where I swear the two disagreed on various films  just so they could  argue with each other.  It made great television, and introduced the audience to not only big studio blockbusters, but small independent releases.

Life Itself is a documentary film based on Roger’s self-penned memoir that came about (sadly) during the last four months of his life.

Courtesy of Michael Hixon

When the film opens,we see Roger bedridden in a hospital, conversing with the man he chose to direct Life Itself, Steve James.   You may know Steve from the 1994 Hoop Dreams documentary that he wrote and directed. Interestingly, Hoop Dreams was chosen as the best film of 1994 by both Siskel and Ebert.

I must confess that the hospital scenes which are mixed in throughout the film, are very hard to watch. I asked Chaz about this, and she agreed with me. She is traveling all over the world to promote Life Itself, and has to endure that question at almost every screening. It was Roger’s idea to leave those parts in, not hers.

With the exception of his wife, when Gene was first diagnosed with brain cancer, he didn’t tell anyone, including Roger. This hurt Roger deeply. He understood though, as Gene also didn’t tell his own children.  Roger told Chaz he didn’t want this to happen to his family and fans should a terminal illness ever happen to him.

The rest of the film is thankfully devoted to Roger’s personal and professional history, which contained many surprises.

Courtesy of Michael Hixon

 

I knew he started out very young as a writer, and a political activist. I also knew that he was given the film review column at the Chicago Sun-Times with no experience at that task, after another writer had died. I did NOT know that Roger was a hardcore party devil and somewhat of a playboy in his younger days.

He closed every bar in Chicago until he was in his late 30’s. He checked into Alcoholics Anonymous at the age of 37, and found it was the right thing for him to do. It was at AA, that he also met the woman that would change his life forever, Chaz. She had been a young lawyer, politically active, and loved movies.Their love and marriage became one of the best known and respected inter-racial love stories in show business history.

This is the main theme of Life Itself, but there is another love story here also.

Siskel and Ebert appeared to dislike each other on camera. That was not an act. However, they also deeply respected each other, as Gene became the big brother Roger never had, even tho Roger was slightly older. It was a love/hate relationship beneficial to both of them, both personally and professionally. Something else I never knew was that the younger Gene Siskel was also a playboy, and a personal friend of Hugh Hefner’s.

Some critics thought Roger became too close to many in Hollywood, including directors Martin Scorsese and Russ Meyers, and many stars. I contend that Roger’s reviews on films also reflected his views on life, thus the title Life Itself.

Roger rooted for the common man, underdogs, and those who appeared top have great odds stacked against them.

He has a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame right near fellow writer Rod Serling (Twilight Zone).

Roger was usually closer to my personal take on films than Gene was. Roger, while in the minority HATED Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange“, and loved Taxi Driver, as did I.

There are many memorable film clips, photos, newspaper clippings and interviews in Life Itself. However the one that sticks with me the most is the phrase uttered by Roger himself: “I sense time slipping thru my fingers like a long scarf”. Roger had deep passion for film, social justice, his beautiful wife Chaz, his adopted brother Gene Siskel, and for Life Itself.

Chaz Ebert still publishes ROGEREBERT.COM.   You can see most of Roger Ebert’s reviews there, along with a few from Chaz herself, and other talented writers.

I predict Life Itself will be nominated for “Best Documentary” of 2014. Parts of it are hard to watch, but well worth it !

Also check out the Tonight Show video below, where Siskel encouraged Ebert to give his negative review of Three Amigos, while sitting next to one of it’s stars, Chevy Chase.

 

This is great television.

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