I have watched “Siskel & Ebert” for years. From their days on PBS, when they had more time and went into more detail about each film, to their show’s incarnation in television syndication, when the reviews got a little shorter, the banter was a little less acidic to make more room for commercials. Then Gene Siskel died. I was a little shaken up, because I had watched this guy for years. I felt like I knew a little bit about him, that he was a friend I could trust. But Roger carried on eventually settling on Richard Roeper as a co-host. Roeper was no Siskel, but at least I still got to see Ebert give thoughtful, insightful reviews. Then Ebert got sick and eventually Roeper was left with a series of co-hosts, while they waited for Ebert to recover and get better.
My years watching “Siskel & Ebert” provided an early, lasting influence on my love for films and their reviews helped me discover many films I probably would not have otherwise known about without their input. Their love for film, and my admiration for both, helped me to start writing reviews and led me to try to get my voice heard. I feel a closer kinship to Mr. Ebert - he and I are very similar in many ways and his work has continued for many years beyond the death of Gene Siskel. Because of my feelings of admiration for Mr. Ebert, I was eager and reluctant to watch “Life Itself”, because I knew before-hand that it covered Roger’s death.
Ebert recovered from the surgery, to a certain extent, but the damage of the disease left him ravaged and ended his television career. The thyroid cancer and resulting surgeries and complications left him unable to speak or eat and his facial expressions became difficult for many, including me, to watch. Roger and his wife, Chaz, attempted to revive “At The Movies” for PBS, with two hosts covering the movies and bickering about their opinions. Ebert’s written reviews were included, and read by Bill Curtis. It was short-lived and lead to a new website featuring an archive of all of Ebert’s reviews.
This was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of Mr. Ebert’s life. I knew a few other facts, like he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. But there is a lot about his life that I did not know.
“Life Itself”, the new documentary from Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) provides a lot more detail about the writer’s life. Roger and his wife, Chaz, asked James to make a documentary about Ebert as a celebration of his life. But they didn’t realize that Roger’s condition was as bad as it was, that he was deteriorating so fast, and because he dies during the course of the film, the movie becomes more memorial in nature.
James seems to have changed course during the production. Initially, the filmmaker e-mailed a series of questions to Roger, planning on using the answers as a sort of chapter guide. But the prolific writer was too tired to answer so many questions prompting the filmmaker to begin sending one question at a time. This new pace seems to provide the march to Roger’s death. Ebert is clearly getting frustrated at the state of his rehabilitation, it is taking longer than he or Chaz anticipated, he is spending more time out of the home than is probably healthy. There is a lot of footage of Roger and Chaz at the hospital visiting with family – a moment of his step-grand-children visiting, edited with archival photos of their family vacations, is especially touching. There is also some footage of Roger going through what appears to be very painful rehab.
James begins to weave archival footage and interviews with friends and family to tell the complete story, from the beginning. The new footage and the interview questions become chapter headings, if you will, prompting the depiction of a new part of his life. Starting with his first job, the story weaves back and forth, occasionally touching on his childhood, but concentrating more on his early days as a newspaper man before moving into the “Two Thumbs Up” era.
When the story moves to his partnership with Gene Siskel, you learn more about both men. Siskel’s widow is interviewed and we see some photos of Gene in his early days, including some shots of Siskel and Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion. Gene Siskel at the Playboy Mansion? In the lagoon? I never knew. I would never have guessed. The story of their partnership begins and paints a picture of how insecure Siskel was and how jealous Ebert was. Their partnership began as an uneasy meeting of the egos, eventually growing into a friendship. But the details of their back and forth jabs and some b-roll footage provides some fascinating material bringing their story alive.
A significant portion of the story involves Chaz; how she and Roger met, when they met, their relationship, her care for Roger. This is also nice to see because he found love late in his life which sort of awakened him, giving him new appreciation of what his life is.
As the story nears the inevitable, it becomes harder to watch and more emotional. Don’t get me wrong. It was already difficult to watch because of the after effects of Roger’s surgery; his jaw basically hangs there, in front of his neck. It is difficult to watch someone you have seen and experienced for a very long time, someone who made a lasting influence upon you, someone who used to seem so vital and important, become so sick and have such difficulty living the life you know they should. He really becomes a whisp of his former self and needs to have constant care and attention.
And as the film winds to the end, James includes the last communications he had with Ebert and the last communication Ebert shared with his followers. They will both surely bring a tear to your eye.
“Life Itself” was meant to be a visual companion to the autobiography he wrote a few years ago. Ebert asked a filmmaker he greatly admired to take the helm. Instead, the project becomes a sort- of swan song to a man who was very influential in Hollywood.
It is a film that should receive ‘thumbs up’ in tribute to the subject of the film.