More than just a movie critic, Roger Ebert could change lives.
Midway into the new documentary Life itself, which shares the same name as the late film reviewer's 2011 memoir, Ebert's longtime friend and Life Itself executive producer Martin Scorsese recounts one of the darkest times in his life. It was the early 1980s, around the time that Raging Bull premiered, and Scorsese was in bad shape. His third marriage had recently ended and he was succumbing to drugs. The forces left the filmmaker in a deep, intense depression. Near tears, Scorsese recalls how one random phone call changed everything. He'd been give word that world-famous critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wanted to invite him to the Toronto International Film Festival to receive a special tribute, honoring the superior films he'd made up until that point, including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull.
And just like that, Scorsese felt alive again. His existence was validated. "That night changed it," says Scorsese in Life Itself, overcome with emotion, "and it started my life again."
Here's the thing about Roger Ebert—every single movie lover out there has their own special Ebert anecdote, whether it's a personal encounter, a positive review he gave to one of their movies, the formative experiences of reading his reviews, or some other way the film critic affected them. You could have requested such a story from any one of the 200-plus people seated inside The Paley Center for Media's small but comfortable Bennack Theater, attending a special private screening of Life Itself hosted by Rooftop Films and Piper-Heidsieck. Also in the building were the film's director, Steve James, and Roger Ebert's partner, Chaz.
As the film played, following its triumphant premiere screenings at the Sundance Film Festival over a week ago, you could hear several of the attendees crying, but there was also a tremendous amount of laughter. James, of Hoop Dreams fame, navigates the tricky prospect of making a documentary about someone who was universally beloved with admirable honesty. Begun five months before Ebert's death in April 2013, it's not a saintly portrait, or some kind of one-sided hagiography. Life Itself, largely funded by the $150,000 James and his colleagues raised through the crowd-funding website Indiegogo, captures all of Roger Ebert, flaws and all.
Granted an amazing amount of up-close-and-personal access by Ebert and Chaz, James spends much of the film alongside Ebert in the hospital rooms he occupied when surgery in 2003 for a cancerous salivary gland took away his ability to talk or and papillary thyroid cancer hindered his walking. Despite those ailments, the Roger Ebert seen in Life Itself is in incredibly high spirits. One moment, he's sonning the director for trying to crack a one-liner, typing into his laptop's digitally generated voice system, "I'll tell the jokes here, James." The next, he's bravely allowing James to film a nurse sticking a suction tube through his neck area. Ebert is in visible pain, but James captures it all. The director mentions that Ebert sent him an email later that night that led with "Great stuff!" and expressed how happy he was that the film's eventual viewers would get to see something that no one normally gets to witness.
Near the end of Life Itself, as Ebert's condition worsens, he sends James another email, reiterating to him that he wants the film to show everything, no matter how uncomfortable the situation gets. He wouldn't want to be a part of anything that isn't honest. "This is not only your film," he says in the email.
Initially, James was approached by screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, Gangs of New York) about faithfully adapting the Life Itself memoir into a more straightforward documentary. James, knowing that Ebert was still active and attended movie screenings on a regular basis, despite his physical condition, envisioned a film that followed Ebert around the city of Chicago doing what he'd always done throughout his nearly 50-year hustle as the chief critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and his more recent incarnation as a social-media-savvy blogger: watch movies non-stop. Unfortunately, a sudden hip fracture sidelined Ebert in December 2012 and hospitalized him. James' mission had to be altered.
"Because of that, I was allowed to get a glimpse into his and Chaz's day-to-day lives, with all of their humor and their strength," said James during the post-screening Q&A last night, moderated by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. "I originally thought I'd be able to get shots like seeing Roger pull up to the Chicago Theater, with my camera behind him and getting the theater's marquee over his shoulder, capturing Chicago as much as Roger himself. But the injury made it more intimate."
Chaz Ebert, her husband's "angel," as he says himself in Life Itself, was with both Roger and James every step of the way. The idea of James documenting moments like that suction tube or a moment late into the film where she and Roger fight while his aids are trying to get him to come off his wheelchair, though, wasn't something she was comfortable with during the actual filming. Now that she's seen the movie, however, she's made peace with that. "It's hard for me to watch the movie, because because until I hear the music come in at the end, before the closing credits, it feels like he's still here," said Chaz after the screening. "I'm really glad that Steve's film exists as sort of a maintenance of Roger's legacy, every part of it, and I know Roger would be, too. But he knew that he would never see the movie. He had a sense that he wouldn't be around. He just knew."
Life Itself does as excellent a job at putting Roger Ebert's colorful, film-powered world into a sprawling context as it does show his final months alive. Through candid, often hilarious interviews with some of Roger's closest personal friends, former colleagues, fellow critics (including Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss), and the filmmakers whom he impacted the most (like documentarians Errol Morris and Werner Herzog and indie stalwarts Ramin Behrani and Ava DuVernay), James paints a well-rounded look at the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic behind those 46 years' worth of reviews. You see him holed up inside the local Chicago pub O'Rourkes back when he was just starting out at the Sun-Times, secretly battling his alcoholism while courting hookers, "gold diggers, opportunists, or psychos." You try to better understand why in the hell one of the smartest movie minds ever would write a sleazy exploitation flick like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a trashy 1970 cult classic that Scorsese cheekily praises for director Russ Meyer's "editing during that sex scene in the back of the car."
Beyond Ebert's relationship with Chaz, the heart of Life Itself lies in the other "love" of his life, Gene Siskel. The two men were polar opposites—Ebert was self-deprecating and content with keeping his social life within the Chicago borders; Siskel, on the other hand, was a regular at the Playboy mansion, and some epic photos obtained by James show Siskel cavorting with topless women beneath a waterfall and living it up on a private jet.
Ultimately, Siskel and Ebert grew to adore each other through their 20-year working relationship as on various TV shows, beginning as the stiff, almost catatonic hosts of the local access show Opening Soon at a Theater Near You and eventually settling into their respective comfort zones on nationally aired programs. One of Life Itself's funniest moments comes from never-before-seen footage of Siskel and Ebert filming an intro in August 1987 for their weekly show Siskel and Ebert & the Movies. Ebert wants to label the episode as "Thriller Week," referencing the three thrillers opening that weekend, including the Michael Caine/Pierce Brosnan film The Fourth Protocol and the Kevin Costner-starring No Way Out. It's a delight to see two grown men diss each other out of mutual, if not also dysfunctional, adoration.
At the beginning of Life Itself, James shows footage of Roger Ebert giving a speech outside the Chicago Theater. In it, he encapsulates his love of cinema in a few simple yet resonant words: "A movie is like a machine that generates empathy."
For me, a lifelong fan and admirer of Roger Ebert's writing, Life Itself also generated inspiration. The section in which Martin Scorsese talks about how Ebert helped to reinvigorate his confidence, in particular, hit me hard. It brought me back to early 2013, a time when, as a proud member of the Complex Pop Culture team, I was enduring my own period of self-doubt. In no way am I trying to compare my internal struggles to what Scorsese struggled with back in the '80s—it was more of a "Do people actually give a damn about my opinions of movies?" fit of insecurity. Unless you're someone of Roger Ebert's, or even A.O. Scott's, stature, reviewing movies online can sometimes feel anonymous, even if your byline is present above every article. There's no shortage of film critics filling the Internet with their POVs. It's easy to feel like you're just a cog in the machine.
Roger Ebert, though, knew about my work, whether he paid attention to the byline or not. Last February, out of nowhere, Ebert linked to a feature I did out of the utmost respect for him, one compiling The 50 Harshest Roger Ebert Movie Review Quotes, on his Facebook page. He also tweeted it out.
I was floored. This was my equivalent to the call Martin Scorsese received about his Toronto tribute:
I wish I could have thanked Roger Ebert for what he did that day. I'm sure he didn't realize how much that one basic retweet meant to me. That moment changed things for me. It gave me confidence.
There's no doubt that everyone watching Life Itself inside the Paley Center last night relived a similar experience while listening to Mr. Scorsese's powerful account. At one time or another, their lives were forever changed by Roger Ebert.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)