Roger Ebert is a very, very good storyteller. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; he has spent the past 40-plus years observing great storytellers (and many not-so-great ones). His new memoir, Life Itself, is filled with terrific tales: getting lost on a drive with Robert Mitchum, going to Stockholm for a set visit with Ingmar Bergman, taking a trip to an all-night grocery with Russ Meyer and Sid Vicious, spending an afternoon in New Jersey with Gene Siskel and David Letterman, drinking and chatting the night away with Pauline Kael and a young Martin Scorsese. Some of them may be familiar to longtime readers, but that’s okay; a great story is meant to be retold, and we smile in appreciation at an anecdote we may recall from one of his earlier books, or his interviews, or his blog.
That blog was, in many ways, the beginning of this book. Of writing the memoir, Ebert explains, “I thought it was about time. The experience of serious illness recast my years up until then in a new light for me. My thoughts turned to the past, and as I started to write a blog I found myself falling into an autobiographical mode. I was never shy about speaking, and now, forced to be mute, I found the things I had to say were forcing themselves to the surface in my writing. I didn’t ‘need’ to write my memoirs, but I found that—I was.”
The “serious illness” he mentions — a bout with cancer that left him physically weakened and without a lower jaw — was detailed at length in a moving and rather extraordinary 2010 profile by Chris Jones for Esquire magazine. It quickly became an Internet must-read; that piece (and a follow-up appearance on his friend Oprah Winfrey’s show) led to an outpouring of emotion and support from his readers. Jones detailed Ebert’s many surgeries, the relationship between the critic and his wife Chaz, and the day-to-day logistics of an existence wherein Ebert can no longer eat, drink, or speak. Our interview was conducted via email, and though he frets in Life Itself that email “isn’t conversation,” it certainly feels like it when coming from someone who conducts all of his communication in writing. As the Esquire profile explains, Ebert has thrown himself into his reviews, his online journal, his Twitter feed, even hand-written Post-It notes, and uses those as the “voice” he no longer has. “There is no need to pity me,” he wrote on one Post-It to Jones. “Look how happy I am. This has led to an explosion of writing.”
His memoir is written in rough chronology, but is structured more according to themes than a literal year-by-year timeline: childhood, education, writing, the newspaper business, friendships, movie stars, filmmakers. He writes, with nostalgia and affection, of being a newspaperman at the end of “the Front Page era,” and of his transition into film critic—a career he had not initially intended for himself. He did not enter the field as a film student or frustrated filmmaker, as many of his critical brethren tend to be; I asked if this particular background was why he remains, in his own words, “beneath everything else a fan.”