A really good documentary film is at its best when it chronicles the life, times and works of a truly exceptional individual. Such is the case with Life Itself, based on the autobiography of arguably the most famous film critic of all time, Roger Ebert. Oscar-nominated director Steve James, most famous for his basketball epic Hoop Dreams, was given an all access pass to Ebert during his final months before he died of cancer. It didn’t help his condition that a botched surgery left him with no lower jaw, unable to speak or eat.
But there’s so much more here about this fascinating writer, the only film critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. I was afraid that the severity of his condition would make this a very hard film to watch. But, as with virtually everything else in life, Ebert’s charm and humor manages to shine through even the darkest hours. When faced with the grimmest of lemons of life, he made a huge batch of lemonade. He never gave up, continuing to write, review movies, and even teaming up with someone who created a talking computer that could somewhat replicate his voice so that he could type what he wanted to say, and it would do just that.
First and foremost, Roger Ebert was a man deeply in love… with movies. He championed his favorites and never missed an opportunity to introduce an audience, or even an individual, to a truly great film. Each year he would conduct a seminar in which he and his audience would watch a classic film frame-by-frame, stopping whenever someone said, “stop” for discussion. It might take five hours to go through a two-hour film, but those present came away with a learning experience that was unmatched.
He was so much in love with movies that he had no room in his heart for anyone or anything else, until at age 50 he met his wife-to-be, Chaz, and got married. There are also lots of good film clips, interviews, and highlights of Ebert’s career. We learn about his association with notorious filmmaker Russ Meyer, a great friend, for whom Roger wrote the screenplay of Meyer’s magnum opus Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. There is an exploration of his relationship with television partner-in-thumbs, Gene Siskel, with whom they developed a large fan base for film criticism, first on PBS, then on commercial television. Like many great brotherhoods or marriages, it was a love-hate relationship, but mostly love. Siskel died of a brain tumor several years before Ebert.
But mostly Life Itself is a portrait of a passionate, talented, funny person, warts and all, who was probably the best cheerleader movies ever had.
So I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that this is where I was supposed to tell you to go see Life Itself at the Mariemont Theatre. Unfortunately, the run of the film ended last Thursday. The good news is that it’s still available on Video On Demand sources and from iTunes, and will likely be out on DVD before long. However you see it, don’t miss it.