If you are a fan of the movies, if Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies meant anything to you, if some sly wording by the late Roger Ebert in a column from his 46 years as The Chicago Sun-Times‘ film critic convinced you to see the film that changed your life, you should probably go see Life Itself, the new documentary about America’s film critic, in the theater. As his widow, Chaz Ebert, tells me over the phone, “I think it’s so poetic that a man like Roger, who spent his whole life reviewing movies, ends up ending his life on the big screen.”
The documentary, directed by Steve James — whose classic documentary Hoop Dreams was championed by Ebert in the ’90s — began as an adaptation of Ebert’s memoir, also called Life Itself. “We did not know that Roger was going to pass away during the making of the movie,” Chaz says. “Had we known that, I don’t know if we would have gone for it with the project.” The film is raw, shocking, and honest about the toll that cancer took on Ebert’s health. We see him in the hospital, struggling with physical therapy, his eyes merry even when a nurse is suctioning in the space where his jaw used to be.
“You know why you do it?” Chaz says, when I ask her how she felt about letting the frank footage of Ebert’s life in the hospital out into the world. “Because you believe in the truth of the situation. Because Roger was so brave that he wanted to be transparent about illness, and when he suspected he was dying, he wanted to be transparent about that too. And I just decided, in the spirit of Roger, to just go along with it. And I’m glad I did. I think Steve made a beautiful film.”
The film goes into detail about Ebert and Chaz’s love story. They met later in life, at an AA meeting, and got married in 1992, when Ebert was 50 years old. They had laughter, grandkids, and the movies. “I’ll tell you one of our favorite movies to watch together. It was Santa Sangre by [Alejandro] Jodorowsky,” Chaz said. She wants the film to play at next year’s Ebertfest, so that the cult director can come to Illinois and read people’s tarot cards.
Ebert’s place at the Sun-Times was assured, even as the newspaper industry began its precipitous, Internet-catalyzed decline. “[The Sun-Times‘ owner] old Roger when he bought the paper that Roger had a job for life. And as it turns out, he did end up spending his entire career there.” Yet he still took time to be a mentor for younger writers as well. One of the pleasures of traveling with Life Itself, according to Chaz, is hearing from people about how “Roger influenced their lives. He answered letters. There are some film critics who are pretty well known, like Scott Foundas of Variety, who talks about how Roger – he has a copy of the letter he wrote to Roger when he was 13 years old, and Roger wrote back to him! And that happened over and over again. And people still have copies of those letters. Some of these are letters that Roger typed on a typewriter – it was that long ago.”
Life Itself is a tearjerker, and it is already being talked about as the film to beat for Best Documentary at next year’s Oscars, a journey that would be the culmination of a lot of interesting stories — particularly for James, whose Hoop Dreams was famously snubbed in 1994. For Chaz, it’s a stirring tribute to the life that she shared with a man she loved, and she “would give it two thumbs up. One thumb is for the brilliant filmmaker Steve James, and I’d say that one thumb is for my magical, humanist husband.”