Roger Ebert had one final gift for the movie world, and for the world in general, as we see in Steve James’ moving and memorable documentary “Life Itself”: his honesty in facing death. When the longtime Chicago Sun-Times movie critic and social media genius began cooperating on a movie with James – the director of “Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters” and numerous other documentaries – neither of them quite understood what they were in for. Ebert had faced major health issues, including the loss of his lower jaw (and the power of speech) to cancer. Although his condition was clearly precarious, there was no reason to think he wouldn’t live for several more years. That changed rapidly.
“Life Itself,” which began as a movie adaptation of Ebert’s autobiography, soon became two things at once: the telling of a remarkable life story about a plain-spoken movie critic who became one of America’s most beloved cultural figures, and a wrenching and intimate chronicle of his approach to the end. In one of James’ first shots in the film, we see Ebert’s face up close, in his hospital bed, while he’s sleeping. Without the turtleneck he customarily wore in public, it’s obvious that there is no bone inside Ebert’s lower jaw. It’s just a molded flap of skin. Ebert was never less than honest about his health issues and his facial disfigurement – but to see it up close, on an obviously ill and vulnerable person, is startling and at first highly distressing.
I discussed that issue with James and Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, when I met them in New York recently. Chaz herself plays an important role in the film and an immense role in Ebert's self-reinvention during the second half of his life, when he got sober, became part of Chaz's extended African-American family and by most accounts got a whole lot nicer. I’ve heard a few people who knew Roger say privately that they think “Life Itself” is a hagiography that glosses over Roger’s flaws. (I won’t name names because I don’t think anyone has made that case in print.) I myself only knew Roger slightly – I’ll get to our famous throwdown about the movie “Secretariat” – but I don’t see it that way at all. First of all, Steve James is straightforward about the fact that his movies are personal, and are meant to capture his view of people and events. He knew and liked Roger, who had lobbied hard for “Hoop Dreams” and probably got that movie both an audience and an Oscar nomination. So this isn’t intended as an impartial chronicle, if such a thing is even possible.
But beyond that, anyone who yearns to construct a negative assessment of Roger Ebert will find adequate material here. His past as an alcoholic, a womanizer and something of an arrogant hothead is never glossed over. As fervently as Chaz Ebert denies this, I think the way that Gene Siskel got under Ebert’s skin during their early TV years reflected some insecurity in Roger, some chip on his shoulder about having attended the University of Illinois and not being a smooth-talking Ivy League bon vivant, as Siskel was. Marlene Iglitzen, Siskel’s widow, gets ample screen time to discuss her late husband’s complicated relationship with Ebert, on television and in person. Critics who have misgivings about Roger’s legacy and his effect on moviegoing and movie culture, including Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum, get to speak their piece.
What emerges from all this is a loving portrait of a memorable cultural commentator in a distinctive American vein, a guy from a Norman Rockwell small town in the Midwest who embraced a half-accidental movie-reviewer gig as a platform for becoming a latter-day Mark Twain or Will Rogers. While Roger had an unusual ability to write directly at a broad general audience without a hint of condescension, anyone in the chattering classes who viewed him as an anti-intellectual rube was only kidding themselves. As Chaz noted in our conversation, he had been a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago before taking the Sun-Times job, and throughout his career he fought for genuine debate and tirelessly advocated for smaller films, adventurous films, foreign and independent films, films by and about women and people of color.
If I have any criticism of Roger’s criticism, it reflects something that probably isn’t a flaw: His essential American optimism, his determination to root for movies and artists and assume good intentions until proven wrong. Our big fight in 2010 was about Randall Wallace’s “Secretariat,” a movie I enjoyed watching but felt was loaded with insidious mythology and ideology. I had written a deliberately provocative review that provoked Roger – who really wanted it, I think, just to be a movie about a racehorse – into an extended rebuttal, which led me to fire back and also led Rush Limbaugh to read my entire review on the air. (Limbaugh had to explain to his listeners who Leni Riefenstahl was – I’m reaching for a joke there, but I don’t quite have it.) I’m sticking to my guns on that movie, and I’m confident Roger would stick to his – and I couldn’t have been more grateful to him. When I saw him a few months later in Cannes, he took me by the arm and said, “Wasn’t that fun?”
I’m not too sure about the influence of the Siskel-Ebert thumbs-up, thumbs-down model: Those two always used it within the context of vigorous, funny and sometime vituperative debate, but it also galvanized generations of consumer-guide followers who weren’t as good. But in an era when newspapers were dying, the basic values of journalism were in question and movie reviews became a debased currency, Roger Ebert’s passion for movies, life, writing and democracy never wavered. Other journalists of his generation were left behind by the social-media revolution; he embraced it and became one of its leading figures. We are poorer without him, but “Life Itself” erects a passionate monument to his legacy.
I met Chaz Ebert and Steve James for breakfast at Rockefeller Center during their recent visit to New York. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Some people who see this movie, potentially a lot of people, will be too young to remember the immense cultural impact of Roger and Gene’s TV show. It’s so funny and so invigorating to see them together after all this time!
Steve James: One of the things I was gonna do in the movie but never did is a montage of all the imitators.
Chaz Ebert: Ooh!
S.J.: I know, I know. I should have. Because I interviewed people about it and got some great choices, some funny comments about how awful they were. But then I decided, you know, you can’t do everything.
There were so many. I’m sure I’ve forgotten most of them. I can only be grateful I never tried it!
S.J.: Oh, yeah. None of them were any good.
That’s an interesting topic, actually. Do you guys think it was a pure accident, that chemistry between Gene and Roger? Or did they kind of know they would be good together, even though they didn’t like each other that much?
C.E.: No one could have seen the chemistry that those two had. They were just hoping to do a nice — I mean, it sort of came out of nowhere. It was really like magic. But it was engendered because they both felt so passionately about the movies, and they both — in the beginning, for six years, they didn’t really speak to each other outside of the show. There was that contentious relationship. It also was engendered by their degree of competitiveness within the newspaper market, that you don’t see these days, of course.
S.J.: You know, the other thing that struck me is that when you look at the first shows, especially their first show, it’s nothing like what it became. And it’s not just because Roger had to learn to be good for the camera and Gene was better at first, but they both needed — they’re very courteous to one another in those first shows! It’s almost like they were holding back what they really wanted to do. They’re way too respectful. And that first show is not nearly as interesting as it became rather quickly, when they kind of realized, “I want to take this guy on.”
Roger ultimately became much more famous than Gene, of course. But at the beginning – did he feel a little intimidated by Gene? Because the way that Gene presented himself was this educated, cultured playboy type. And whatever you want to say about Roger, he wasn’t that!
C.E.: No, no, that wasn’t it. Because Roger was very educated. Roger was actually, in my opinion, the more brilliant of the two. Roger was very educated, he just had an Everyman manner. He didn’t wear his education on his sleeve.
S.J.: Well, I was just going to say that as someone who went to state college, you know — I mean, you know better than me. But I wouldn’t be surprised. As a guy who went to state college, and has encountered Ivy League people all my life, I’ve always had a thing about it. There’s an element of, like — you’re not so fucking smart. You know what I mean? Just because you went to an Ivy League does not make you smarter than me.
C.E.: Yeah, but Roger was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. That’s not too shabby!
S.J.: No, but you know what I mean. Not that he felt insecure about his own intelligence but like, I always —I’m just speaking about myself — I always felt like people who went to the Ivy League always acted like they were smarter than everybody else. And I did not like that.
C.E.: But that was not a source of intimidation for Roger. Never ever. I know what the answer is about Roger and Gene. The answer is that Roger did not enjoy people arguing, because Roger was an only child and his parents used to bicker. Roger hated it. He hated getting into disagreements with people. Someone makes the point in the film, his friend John McHugh, who knew him years before he went on the show with Siskel. He says, this was not the Roger we all knew. Because Roger was an affable sort who loved telling stories. He had to learn to fight back in his years with Gene Siskel. That’s what changed, that’s what he was uncomfortable about — not an intimidation by Gene but facing this fellow who wants to argue with him over everything. So that’s what it was.
I learned so much from this film about Roger's early life, and I was especially impressed by his college journalism, his columns and political essays that he wrote on deadline at age 21, or whatever it was. Some of that stuff was brilliant, written when he was presumably late for class and doing all this other stuff. It makes you appreciate the breadth of this person, his education and sensibility. Did he ever question his decision to become a movie critic? Because he could have written anything he wanted to. Did he ever wonder what else he might have accomplished?
C.E.: No. The thing he said — this is actually very funny, but let me answer the question first. The answer to that is Roger would have been an academic. But he satisfied that desire by teaching film at the University of Chicago for 30 years in the enrichment division. Other than that, Roger said that if he hadn’t been a film critic, if he hadn’t been able to teach film, he would have loved to own a 7-Eleven so he could wear a little name tag that said, “Hi, My Name Is Roger Ebert” and straighten all the cartons of milk —
S.J.: You never told me that in the interview! (Laughter.)
C.E.: And put everything in order in the store and say, “Ma’am, I think we have six dozen of eggs over there at 39 cents a dozen, can I get one for you?” (Laughter.) He was serious! He loved something about that, just Middle America kinds of things, the same he loved small family restaurants. That’s the only thing he’d ever expressed a desire to do.
S.J.: Where did I get the thing — and I feel like I read it from him but maybe I read it in an interview with someone — that when he was young, he really saw himself being a newspaper man, then an Op-Ed guy, than eventually moving on to New York and becoming a novelist?
Yeah, exactly. Like the Truman Capote career path or something. Or H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling.
C.E.: No, I know that he had the thing about being a novelist. But I don’t remember anything about him wanting to go to New York particularly. I never heard him say that. He had plenty of chances to go to New York and turned them down.
Now that some time has passed, Chaz, as you look at the movie and the decisions that were made, how do you feel about Steve and Roger’s decision to keep on shooting what turned out to be Roger’s final weeks? When he was clearly suffering and getting close to the end?
C.E.: Well, I was part of that decision. We wouldn’t have done the film if Roger and I hadn’t agreed that it was the right thing to do. Roger and Steve did make a decision to film the medical procedure without my knowledge. And I think now that it was the right decision as well. Because Roger — when he did this, Roger said, “I don’t want to participate in a movie that I wouldn’t want to see.” And Roger loved seeing the really stripped-down, bare part of what it’s like to be another person. And I think that’s what he and Steve provided. I think it was the right decision. If I had known about it in advance [filming the medical procedure], I would have said no. And Roger knew that -- that’s why he did it when I was out of town.
S.J.: In fact, we had a meeting right before we went into production — like, literally a few days before. He was complaining in that meeting about his hip hurting, but he didn’t know it was a fractured hip, didn’t know he was on his way to the hospital. And we were having a meeting and planning to do all this stuff next week and at one point Chaz said, “OK, I need you” — to me and my producer — “I need you to leave right now for a little while.”
I didn’t know what was going on, but Roger did — this classic way they communicate without words being spoken. He signals to her, and she goes, “I know, I know, Roger, you don’t care, but I do, please just --” and he was like, you know. We left, but the way their townhouse is set up, you can kind of see through the glass, from room to room. So I could see this procedure being done, this suction, and I said to Zach, “We have to film that somehow because it’s a part of his life.” But you know, I have to say that when we did film it, I then realized why you didn’t want us to. I understood.
That scene is definitely tough to watch. But you hit us pretty hard right away, with the opening scene or almost the opening scene, when we can see Roger’s face and it’s clear there’s nothing inside his lower jaw. That’s going to be a challenging moment for many viewers. I really wanted to read Roger’s review of that moment in the film!
C.E.: I’m glad you’re asking that question. I never asked that question. Why start with that? It was shocking for me too, it was shocking for me.
I saw the film at Sundance with a bunch of people who had — I mean, nobody had seen it before and maybe 20 percent of the people in the room had known Roger personally. There was an audible gasp that went through the theater.
C.E.: I saw Roger every single day and that shocked me. Shocked me. I gasped when I first saw it. Do you remember when I first saw that clip? I was stunned.
S.J.: Yeah, yeah. So here’s the thing. I’d had a meeting with you guys beforehand, obviously. And the first time we met was the first time I had ever seen Roger without the black turtleneck that he would go out in public with, which really masked that. And so I was like, “Oh, wow.” But when I went in for that first shoot, when I came into the room he was asleep. And when you’re asleep you are in your most vulnerable state. And in his case, his jaw would hang down much more when he was asleep. I remember thinking very distinctly, “Oh I don’t know about this. I don’t know how people are going to feel.” I mean, I knew I had to film it but I didn’t know how people are going to feel.
But then I decided to start with it because I felt like — I mean, I always feel that the film I make should, in a sense, distill the experience I had making it. The revelations and moments that happened -- I want the audience to experience them, in a distilled fashion, as I did. So I made this decision, I wanted to start with almost the first image of him that I really saw. And I wanted the audience to have that reaction, point blank. Because the amazing thing to me about that shot is that when he wakes up and he smiles, it’s like he’s suddenly transformed and he’s Roger. My hope was — and I think it’s been true — that by doing that that way, it’s like you get over it. You get past it and you start to acclimate enough. You see past all of that to who the guy is.
C.E.: I think you’re telegraphing to the audience that this is not the picture you thought you were going to see, and if you thought you knew everything about Roger Ebert, you don’t.
S.J.: We were all struck by the incredible courage of the way in which he did not hide after all of this. He came out publicly, and he did that cover photograph for Esquire. But this was a different level of candor that he was going to share in this film. One of the reasons I put that email in that I got from Roger after the suction scene, was that Roger did perceive that I had some misgivings about what I had filmed, He saw that on my face, and I think he wanted to let me know it was OK. Which was why he emailed me to say, basically, great stuff, I’m so glad you got that. He was saying, “This is what I want too. I know you want it, Steve, but I want this too.”
I bet I’m not alone in having this reaction, but that moment of recognizing Roger, even with his altered features, brought me back to time I spent with my own father when he was dying of cancer and was almost unrecognizable. I remember that struggle, to see the dad that I could remember in that changed person. Many, many people have had some version of that experience.
S.J.: Well, I think that goes to the heart of what Roger did when he made the decision to be public about all of this. That’s why he did it. He did it for you. And it never felt like, “Oh, look at me, look at what I’ve gone through and how brave I am.” If anything, he deflected that. There’s that one comment where he says, “I look like something out of 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.’” He pushed it out to the audience to say, really look at us and look at your own life and look at your own loss and don’t hide.
C.E.: I’m so glad that you said that about relating it and thinking about your father, because Roger is us. People may think they’re going into the theater to see this movie about the icon, and Roger is us. He’s every man. There’s not a one of us who hasn’t had an experience with someone who is sick or dying or disabled or had some change in their life that transforms them in a way that may not be a direction they want to go. I think that that’s why it resonates so much with people so far.
S.J.: I’ve seen some incredible films about people dying. But I can’t think of another film where someone of his fame and stature is that open and candid about something like that. That’s an extraordinary thing. Because famous people, even when they’re honest, there’s a level of honesty, and then you don’t go past that.
C.E.: Very few documentaries that I’ve seen have sort of exposed what the brutality of dying or living with a catastrophic illness is really like. Especially for someone like Roger. And I admire him for doing it.
S.J.: But I want to say something about you too. At the beginning, with the suction scene, you didn’t want me to shoot that. But as things evolved, there’s another suction scene later in the movie, the “Steely Dan suction scene,” where you didn’t try to stop us. And later in the movie, when he comes home and you are trying to get him up the staircase. I’ve had people say to me at that point, “You know what? Please, can you just stop? Can you just go away? You’re not helping the situation.”
C.E.: Believe me, I wanted to.
S.J.: But you didn’t.
C.E.: Because I know Roger, and I went to the movies with him for 24 years. I know the authenticity that he likes, and I know that you can only achieve it by not saying, “Stop. Do this. Now do that. Show us when we’re at our best.”
Well, Roger had an unusual ability to draw on his own experiences and write about himself without coming off as narcissistic. And that was what you were just talking about. I don’t really know where that quality comes from.
C.E.: The more I see the film, the more epiphanies I have about it. As an only child, Roger had to learn to reach out to people and bring them into his playground. He developed this skill so well that he learned how to invite people to the party.
Roger was also someone who had a wide range of intellectual interests and life experiences. He loved film, but that wasn’t his solitary passion. I run into too many younger people — and I know you’ve had this experience, Chaz — who seem to view the whole world through the prism of film or TV or culture. I sometimes wonder whether feel like they’ve never been outside. (Laughter.)
C.E.: Roger had a form letter that he would send to young people who said, “I want to be a film critic. What is it that I should do?” Roger always said, “Get a broader liberal arts education. Go out and learn about life. Volunteer somewhere. Go to the theater. Read books.”
I’ve heard a few people say privately, and I really can’t name names, that they thought the film was a hagiography, designed to paper over Roger’s flaws as a person or as a critic. You’ve already answered this in a way, Steve, by saying that the film is meant to capture your perspective and reflect your experience. But I wonder what other response you might have.
C.E.: Oh, my God. I … Wow. Do people think that?
S.J.: I am surprised at that. Look, I wouldn’t have made the film if I had read the memoir and thought, “This guy is kind of a jerk really. I don’t really like him.” I would only have wanted to do all this if I felt, on a very fundamental level, admiration for him. But part of what I admired about him was that he was a complicated guy. He was a guy that people described as generous but also as having quite an ego and a lot of hubris. He was a guy that struggled with alcohol, a guy that loved womanizing and had a passionate interest in Russ Meyer. [A legendary exploitation director of the ‘60s known for his large-breasted actresses.] I’m not sure what else would go in there. Maybe I just don’t know the things that these people know. Maybe they were colleagues that knew things and saw things that I wasn’t able to unearth.
C.E.: And I’d like to hear what are some of those things. I’m furious, really.
I realize I’m provoking you. But these were private conversations, and I can’t speak for these people in public.
C.E.: No, you don’t have to say who it was, but I wonder what else they think could have been in there, or should have been in there.
S.J.: I don’t feel like there was anything I learned in making the film -- and I feel like I was asking those questions, and people were being quite candid. I don’t feel like I learned anything that’s not in the movie that … I mean, you can’t put every single thing in the movie, but I felt like the qualities that Roger had — the warts, if you will — I feel like are there. But he is essentially a man worthy of admiration. I don’t know what the exposé of Roger would be.
We didn’t let it take over the film, but we have a debate in there about the value of Roger and Gene’s show: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” in a sense. I give Richard Corliss time, and I give Jonathan Rosenbaum credit for articulating some dissenting opinions about that show and what they perceive to have been its influences.
Well, I bet Roger would appreciate this analogy if he were here, but my own feeling about that show is, in a way, the way I feel about Alfred Hitchcock. The show itself was great. The imitation it engendered and its long-term influence was maybe less great. The thumbs-up, thumbs-down thing – I know Roger and Gene were a little ambivalent about it. Because they were both very thoughtful people who wrote interesting and complicated things that went well beyond that kind of binary opposition.
C.E.: It was a consumer show, to tell people whether they should go see a movie or not. Which Roger never apologized for. That’s why they had to have a shorthand for it, and the thumbs caught the public’s imagination. But it was never just “See it or don’t see it,” which is what a lot of stuff is today.
S.J.: The answer to that debate, in part, comes from all the things filmmakers will tell you about Roger, and we have some of that in the film. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s criticism is that Gene and Roger became too much a part of the Hollywood system. After that interview, I went back and looked show by show at the films they reviewed, and it’s remarkable how many they covered that were not Hollywood films. The answer about thumbs-up and thumbs-down is that, yes, I understand the argument against it, but what gets lost is that it’s the debate before they render the opinion that was most meaningful. It was a kind of debate that encouraged people to articulate more than just “I liked it, or I didn’t like it.” A.O. Scott told us – and this is not in the film – that when you’re in daily journalism you need to kind of tell the reader whether they should go see the movie or not. That’s your responsibility as a reviewer. You can wax poetic and talk about complications, but people do want to get to the end of the piece and have some idea about whether they should see the movie or not.
Yeah. I hardly ever do that. (Laughter.)
C.E.: And like it or not, that show, the popularity made film criticism so popular that newspapers hired film critics, that other TV shows tried to duplicate it. It created opportunities for film critics that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, really.
And fast-forwarding to the 21st century, I know Roger was pretty disheartened to see what has happened to film criticism in the last decade, where fewer and fewer places will employ someone to do it, and it mostly has to be a hobby.
C.E.: He was very sad about that, but that’s why we wanted to expand our site at RogerEbert.com to make more opportunities for people. They weren’t gonna get paid, the way newspapers paid people in the past, but at least they could still express their opinions and hone their craft. Roger saw the online world as a new golden age of criticism. But that doesn’t mean that everybody can do it just because they have access to it. We all have the same 26 letters of the alphabet, but not everybody can write Shakespeare.
S.J.: Roger’s life is a perfect example of what is potentially lost with what’s going on. When he started as a critic, as much as he loved movies and participated in the film society, he had to learn to become a film critic. He learned on the job, and he was employed to do so. And there are so many young people I read on the Internet who are really smart. But the question is, are they going to be able to make a career of this and become smarter and better critics, or are they gonna do this as a side job? Because I think that’s unfortunate, that’s a real loss.
”Life Itself” opens this week in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. It opens July 11 in Champaign, Ill., Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, La Pointe, Wis., Miami, Monterey, Calif., Montreal, Nashville, Palm Springs, Calif., Pittsfield, Mass., Santa Fe, N.M., Santa Rosa, Calif., St. Louis, Toronto, Akron, Ohio, and Ottawa, Canada, with wider release to follow. It’s also available on-demand from cable, satellite and online providers.