Life Itself – Film Critic Robert Ebert’s fascinating life and final days

Life Itself is a beautiful movie about film critic Robert Ebert’s fascinating life and painful final days. Life Itself also delves into the the decades-long love-hate relationship between Robert Ebert and Gene Siskel. Both of them were strong personalities who were best known for their T.V. show Siskel & Ebert At The Movies.

Robert Ebert & Gene Siskel

Robert Ebert & Gene Siskel

We find that Roger Ebert was a much more complex character than most people realize. A brilliant writer from a young age, he brought film criticism to a new level at the Chicago Sun Times. Prior to Ebert, the film reviews were done by whoever happened to see a movie that weekend. Ebert turned it into a high art. He saw a movie every day, and took the time to write an in-depth analysis. In 1975, Roger Ebert was awarded a Pulitzer Price.

Ebert was proud of his Chicago working class roots. The Chicago Sun Times is the paper read by the every day people who ride mass transit. After Ebert won the Pulitzer, he was offered a huge amount of money to move to Washington D.C. and become the film critic for the Washington Post . He turned the offer down flat saying simply that he “did not want to have to learn new streets.”

Robert Ebert on the cover of Esquire, after his cancer surgery

Robert Ebert on the cover of Esquire, after his cancer surgery

However, there was a dark side to Roger Ebert as well. He was a hard drinker with the rest of the reporters, and for a number of years was a complete alcoholic. Then one day, he suddenly had enough. He took a last drink, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and never drank again.

Roger Ebert also had a huge ego. He loved being the center of attention and telling endless stories while a group listened.  Whenever he met anyone new, he somehow was able to work into the conversation that he had won a Pulitzer Prize. Roger wanted to be a wild celebrity with beautiful women at his side. However, the fact that he was about 300 pounds meant that he was never very successful with the ladies. At one point in his career, he wrote the screen play for the cheesy soft core porn film Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. He later admitted that the only reason he participated in such trash was that he wanted a chance to meet some of the actresses. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is so bad that it actually became a cult film classic. People still watch it today to laugh at film making at its worst.

Marlene Iglitsen & Chaz Ebert

Marlene Iglitsen & Chaz Ebert

Roger Ebert was not happy to have Gene Siskel come into his life. Both Siskel and Ebert wanted to do a movie review show alone. However, the T.V. producers rightly thought it would be more interesting to have two reviewers discussing a movie, instead of one guy lecturing the audience.

It was the conflict and disagreements between the two that made Siskel & Ebert At The Movies so much fun to watch.  The were both egotists and both convinced that their view was correct and anyone disagreeing with it was an idiot. Their arguments about films were not just for show. Often their fights and discussions about a particular film  would continue for hours even after the  cameras were turned off.

Life Itself has many parts that are difficult to watch, since it also documents the final days when Roger Ebert was dying from cancer.  In attempts to remove the cancer, Ebert’s lower jaw had been removed, and he could no longer speak or eat any solid foods.  However, he refused to give up on life. Roger Ebert became a prolific blogger and continued to review movies constantly. He also adapted his computer so that he could “speak” electronically. He communicated to the world this way for a number of years, and even attended movie conferences and “spoke” to crowds with his electronic keyboard voice.

Robert Ebert & Martin Scorsese

Robert Ebert & Martin Scorsese

Life Itself is brilliantly directed by Steve James, who also created the stunning film Hoop Dreams. There are in-depth interviews with Gene Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, as well as Robert’s wife Chaz Ebert. There are also touching interviews with fans ranging from everyday readers to famous movie people like Martin Scorsese. Steve James does not try to make Roger Ebert a larger than life celebrity. He shows Roger Ebert as a real multifaceted individual, whose passing was mourned by all film lovers.

 

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