Interview: Roger Ebert on Movies, Politics, and ‘Life Itself’

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.”

“That has a lot to do with it,” he replied. “I try not to be cynical or snarky about actors, although sometimes I falter. It is more fun for me to review a good movie than a bad one.” Mick LaSalle, the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, summed up Ebert’s disposition efficiently: “Roger Ebert actually likes movies. It’s a refreshing trait in a critic, and not as prevalent as you’d expect.” One of the Life Itself’s finest passages is a marvelous, extended description of “Saturdays at the Princess,” the old-fashioned movie palace of his youth, where he’d see a serial, a cartoon, a newsreel, and a double feature. That experience is, obviously, a thing of the past, but these days the future of the movie-going experience itself is often in doubt, with exhibitors doing less and home theaters doing more.

Ebert, who has proven eerily prescient in these matters, takes a pragmatic but hopeful approach. “John Ringling North said, ‘The tented circus is a thing of the past,'” Ebert told me. “I wonder if traditional movie theaters are facing the same fate. One of my great pleasures is seeing a good film with a good audience. But as the mainstream turns to remakes, sequels, and 3D, audiences become less sophisticated and demanding, and theaters showing indies, art, and doc films are challenged.

“In a matter of years, most movies will come to us via the Internet, and we will view them on home screens as large as we have room for. The prices of home video projectors will fall steadily, year after year. The expansion of the marketplace will make it easier for films to go into profit, and this will be especially welcome to indie filmmakers. In helping the public choose in a crowded marketplace, film festivals and film critics (both pro and amateur) will be important. High-quality streaming could possibly be a lifeline for theaters. Maybe not. My support for the theatrical experience remains firm.”

If he is cautiously optimistic about movie-going, he is not always as buoyant about moviegoers. In Life Itself, he writes, “[I]f you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.” I asked him what the current overload of sequels, remakes, and “re-boots” tells us about “what people desire and fear.”

“For some of them: They fear the new,” he responded. “They fear taking a chance. They fear informing themselves about new films. They remember a good movie experience and desire to repeat it. It will grow harder to make a great original film, and impossible to avoid remaking it time and again.”

Of course, Life Itself is not purely about movies, just as Ebert himself is not. He writes about his alcoholism (“Without hangovers, it is possible that I would still be drinking. I would also probably be unemployed, unmarried, and probably dead”), and the thirty-plus years he has gone without a drink. He talks about his travels, particularly his many trips to London, where he obsessively returns to his favorite spots (“I may appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but these rituals are important to me”). He writes of his love of books, of being a “toiletries fetishist,” and of his primary point of common interest with “nudie cutie” director Russ Meyer (“Ever since I became aware of them, which was undoubtedly long before I can remember, I’ve considered full and pendulous breasts the most appealing visual of the human anatomy”).

And he writes at length of his politics, which are firmly liberal — as his readers and Twitter followers are well aware. This wasn’t always the case. Back in 1996, when a reader wrote to his “Movie Answer Man” column about Michael Medved’s accusation that Siskel and Ebert were “self-conscious political liberals,” Ebert replied: “There is nothing wrong with a critic having political views — indeed, it is impossible to imagine an intelligent person without them — but the views should not blind him to good filmmaking.” This was a firm, fair response. But it was also a measured one: Ebert stopped short of declaring his own political affiliation, liberal or otherwise.

This has, to put it mildly, changed in recent years. He frequently takes on right-wing talkers, Republican politicians, and Tea Party rhetoric on Twitter and in his blog posts; his political positions even pop up occasionally in his reviews. “My reviews, and all good reviews, are subjective,” he told me. “I am a liberal. Why should I pretend otherwise? When politics are relevant to a film, I’m not going to dodge that.”

But the scope of his writing, and the unfussy manner with which he regards his non-cinematic viewpoints, is a comparatively recent development; these days, he isn’t asking for anyone’s approval or permission to speak his mind. The new way he approaches his work, both in the evolution of his voice and his engagement with his readers, times out quite closely to his brush with cancer. To dismiss this as coincidence would be foolish. A close reading of the work before and after his illness suggests that Ebert simply decided that he had nothing to hide. Having stared down the barrel of his own mortality, he was thankful to still be writing — and he’ll write whatever he likes, thank you very much.

And so we have, in those forums and in Life Itself, a public figure that has let his guard down. He writes of his late TV partner Gene Siskel with affection and honesty. He writes about Chaz with a warmth and sweetness that is utterly disarming, particularly since she was most often referred to in his reviews (before ’06, anyway) as, simply, “my date.” And he writes, with great candor, about his strained relationship with his strict Catholic mother late in her life. “It shows a sad emotional obstruction,” he admits of the secrets he kept from her. “I am writing about it here because I’ll write these memoirs once, and if I were to suppress such an embarrassing area there would be no point in writing them at all.” The raw emotional truth of that line is stunning. I pressed Ebert about it, asking if it was a struggle to decide just how personal and confessional to get in the book.

“I was compelled to tell the truth,” he replied. “I didn’t want to bullshit readers with a sugar-coated alternative history. It’s that simple.”

And so it is. Ebert has often noted that he keeps the famous epigraph of Robert Warshow at his desk: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” When Ebert went under the knife, and battled a sickness that nearly took his life, “the critic” and “the man” became inextricably fused. His life was changed. So was his writing. In Life Itself, Ebert talks about his college years, when he juggled newspaper editing, fraternity life, liberal politics, and complicated romances. “Not many people ever saw me whole,” he writes. It seems that now, between the memoir, the blog, Twitter, and his reviews, that more people are seeing Roger Ebert “whole” — his personal life, his politics, his passions. I asked if this was an accurate assessment.

“I hope it is,” he told me. “I now only have one version. I’m happy that I didn’t write a memoir until I figured out what it was. Strange, for example, how deeply embedded my Catholicism became. I haven’t been a Catholic ‘in the eyes of the church’ since the 1960s. All supernatural belief systems now seem equally preposterous to me. If there are areas of existence I do not understand, I am more comfortable in simply admitting that, instead of buying into superstitions. Yet I believe my social conscience and my liberalism were founded on the teachings of Jesus. So there you have it.”

“Clip it out,” Ebert wrote in 1992, of the Warshow quote. “Stick it where you can see it. It’s not only about the movies.”