Roger Ebert devoted his life to the movies, so it’s only fitting that the most important and influential film critic of all time should be given the spotlight in “Life Itself,” a documentary by Chicago filmmaker Steve James.
The movie, opening in theaters and on VOD Friday, borrows the structure of the late Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same title to chronicle the critic’s early life, his groundbreaking TV show with Gene Siskel and his 46 years at the Chicago Sun-Times.
The film is not, however, a straightforward biographical piece. The essence of the movie can be found in the scenes from the end of Ebert’s life, when cancer cost him his lower jaw and his speaking and eating abilities, and injuries left him hospitalized for months.
“Roger shows you how to live your life and how to die with grace and dignity,” James says.
Amid the pain and suffering of his advanced disease, and the disfiguration it caused, Ebert fundamentally remained the same person, according to James and Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow. His “sense of humor,” “work ethic” and “stubbornness” were there when James was filming, he says. Roger maintained his public persona, reviewed movies and wrote other articles and essays with astounding prolificacy.
The magnitude of the critic’s resolve resonates deepest in scenes depicting difficult medical procedures — which Roger and James filmed without Chaz’s knowledge.
“He said he wanted it warts and all, and he wanted it to be about the man, not the icon,” Chaz Ebert says.
It’s an approach that’s consistent with the way the Pulitzer Prize winner, who died last year at 70, conducted himself throughout his distinguished career. It’s why he inspired so many young journalists, including this one, to get into the business. And it’s certainly the reason that this reporter and many others donated to the documentary’s post-production Kickstarter.
“He was a communicator and a connector,” Chaz says. “He connected with people from the heart. I would say, when Roger wrote his reviews both his brain and his heart were engaged simultaneously. And he felt that way in the film, that if he wanted to reach people, you have to strip down to the bare essentials and let them see who you are and why you’re like that.”
So the film is a celebration of Roger’s life in full, Chaz says. It captures the vibrancy of the man; his professional accomplishments, his other successes and failures, his high points and struggles. And it’s also a movie about what it means to truly live until your last breath.
“It’s an unblinking portrait of the brutality of dying,” Chaz says. “And the film doesn’t turn away from it. Maybe some in the audience will turn away from parts of it, because our society is so used to covering up, or hiding, or being euphemistic about illness and about death. ? This is such a beautiful portrait of life in all its fullness. And life in all its fullness includes death. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things that I’ve seen about how to live, how to die.”
Roger Ebert left an indelible impact on the film industry. These are some of the noteworthy ways Ebert influenced the movies:
Touting “Hoop Dreams”
“Life Itself” director Steve James shot to prominence with this documentary about two Chicago high school students dreaming of professional basketball careers. James openly credits the early, enthusiastic review from Ebert and Gene Siskel as playing a major role in the film’s success.
Boosting Errol Morris’ career
Ebert was an avid champion of directors he admired. Documentarian Errol Morris asserts in “Life Itself” that he wouldn’t have a career without the critic.
Defending “Better Luck Tomorrow”
After director Justin Lin and others involved in the making of the 2002 crime picture were accused of a negative portrayal of Asian-Americans at a Sundance Q&A, Ebert rose and gave a rousing public defense.