Roger Ebert, the most celebrated movie critic in the history of the medium, wanted you to know that he lost his jaw.
In the twilight of his years, Ebert faced multiple forms of cancer, and underwent multiple surgeries, one botched so bad that when cancer had reached his jaw, he simply had his jaw removed, eventually leaving him without the ability to speak. Through handwritten notes and voice modulation software that he manually typed, he was able to still communicate in person, although writing through his Chicago Sun-Times reviews as well as his personal blog remained his preferred form of communication. In 2010, he appeared on the cover of Esquire with the puckered skin of where his jaw used to be left out in the open for all to see. It was a bold move for a man who was so recognized through his years on At the Movies with friend/rival Gene Siskel, but for those who had heard but about his surgery but perhaps didn’t know the full extent of it, that photo served as a bold signal to the world at large, saying “Here I am. Deal with it.”
Early on in Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary based off of Ebert’s memoir of the same name, we get candid footage of Ebert in the hospital, his jaw dangling slightly as he turns his head to acknowledge the people in the room with him. By placing the ailing-but-optimistic Ebert right at the top of the film, audience members who perhaps weren’t aware of his condition or perhaps feel somewhat weirded out at the sight of his jaw actually have time to absorb and accept the reality of what is happening. Slowly and surely, James’ film works its charm, truly giving us a warts-and-all look at the man who is arguably the most recognizable critic of the modern era.
In telling the life story of Roger Ebert, James mixes vintage clips and modern interviews with an actor narrating parts of Ebert’s memoir with eery precision, ultimately paining a warm story of the outspoken boy who worked his way up through the ranks of his college newspaper to eventually landing a job at the Chicago Sun-Times, becoming the film critic for no other reason than the fact that the last one left and his editor just tossed the job at him. His smart-yet-relatable critiques, coupled with his need to champion both underdog indies and populist big studio action films with equal vigor, eventually earned him the Pulitzer Prize, the first of its kind for the medium of film criticism. Before long, his television show with Gene Siskel came into being, and the rest, they say, is history…
…except that it’s not. James’ film works because there is balance and honesty to the narrative he weaves. Why did Ebert end up getting close with raunchy director Russ Meyer and eventually write the screenplay for the schlocky skin flick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? “Boobs,” one friend plainly states. His early days boozing and having a terrible taste in women is brought up, but not as a point of derision. His professional rivalry with Siskel is given a decent amount of screentime; the film at one point shows take after take of the duo recording unenthusiastic bumper ads wherein they criticize each other’s line readings. It’s an uncomfortable moment, but is balanced out later on when we see other failed promos of the duo cracking up and joking with each other over a variety of topics (“Protestants!” Ebert crows, “People who sort of want a religion”). Both feared the other would leave the show and go solo at some point, as they eventually learned their dynamic was a rare thing of beauty. Siskel’s wife tells stories of how even though Siskel would sometimes read Ebert’s notebook upside down and score a big celebrity interview before Ebert did, he championed his accomplishments to Ebert’s face not out of spite but out of friendly competition. The guys infuriated each other (and, when they first emerged, irritated a lot of “traditional” critics), but the way they developed a working relationship over the years that followed proved a thing of beauty.
As Ebert’s health declines in later years, even during the course of James’ filming schedule, James only integrates himself into the film when necessary, showing some of the funny-but-critical emails he receives from the man himself before his final days leaves him barely able to type complete sentences. Throughout it all, the film remains light-hearted and evenly-paced, the breezy, jazzy horn score allowing emotion to seep in but never overpowering or (even worse) dictating what the viewer should be feeling. For how informative, funny, and humane the film is, it’s astounding how the journey through it feels so casual, James demanding little upon the viewer outside of just enjoying what is presented before us, whether it be an older Ebert going through physical therapy after a hairline fracture to his hip or having a friend from his college days point out smart, biting words the young Ebert wrote in an editorial following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. that rivaled some of the great thinkers of the day.
The effortless nature of Life Itself is one of its numerous charms, but the fact that the special features included on the DVD never feel like throwaways only speaks to his power as a director and editor (hat tip to co-editor David E. Simpson as well). In the numerous deleted scenes, we get more on some of the humanizing aspects of Ebert’s personality, like his love of dirty limericks and jokes, along with fun asides like his ongoing bet with a friend about being able to order two Johnny Walker Blacks in any language, or his stepping in to aide a fellow critic during a notable 2005 press kerfuffle involving Rob Schneider. Some of the other features, like a ten-minute sit-down interview with James himself, prove only moderately interesting, and, on the DVD version of the film, the “AXS TV” look at the film simply links back to the trailer, which is already its own standalone feature on the disc — oops.
At the end of the day, Life Itself is a rare, beautiful beast. It’s a subject documentary that will satisfy both long-standing Ebert fans and casual newbies in equal measure, an emotional character portrait, and a warm, empathetic work that sticks with you long after. Ebert never lived to see the finished product, but it’s not a stretch at all to imagine what kind of score Siskel & Ebert would have given it had they the chance: two thumbs up.