Goodbye And Thank You: The Director of Hoop Dreams Talks About His New Roger Ebert Biography, LIFE ITSELF

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Film Critic Roger Ebert ended the first paragraph of his review of Hoop Dreams saying that film “gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” There’s a poignant symmetry in the title of Steve James’ newest documentary, Life Itself, about the work of America’s most acclaimed film critic, Chicago Sun Times’ Roger Ebert. Despite obvious warmth and interest in his subject, director James says, “this is an admiring portrait, but it’s not arrived at without showing the man and the warts.”

The title, Life Itself corresponds also to the title of Ebert’s memoir, which the documentary featured in voice over snippets, performed by Stephen Stanton in a great impersonation of Ebert. In his last years, Ebert lost his jaw to cancer and spoke with the assistance of a computer. James documentary Life Itself begins just after Ebert is diagnosed with a broken hip and features revealing bits of rehab and hospital care. Ebert and his wife Chaz participate in the project with such warmth, it casts a glow on the subject of Ebert’s friendship with James and other filmmakers by extension. James says “There are critics who seem to enjoy panning films but that’s not Roger. You always felt he came to the movies with a hope to love it.” Though James also adds he was fortunate never to be on the receiving end of Ebert’s negative criticism, his film includes Martin Scorsese describing Ebert’s harsh pan of The Color of Money as “devastating.”

In addition to writing about his films, Ebert also had a hand in Scorsese’s career resurrection—he and Gene Siskel, his co-host on the public access TV show “At the Movies,” presented Scorsese a high profile festival award when the director was battling cocaine addiction and struggling for work. Ultimately the man known as half of the industry’s “two thumbs” tried “to use his power thoughtfully to, more often than not, raise up the work of lesser known filmmakers.”

James described Ebert as “arguably, the most powerful critic ever.” And attributed that success to his “his writing ability, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize” but also credits the TV show “that made him a celebrity and rich and extended his influence in ways no other critic had.” James also interviewed Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss, who wrote critically about the negative effect “At the Movies” had on criticism in general. Ultimately, no one is exempt from judgment.

In 1999, Gene Siskel died after a brief and secret battle with brain cancer. After Siskel passed, he was replaced on “At the Movies” with Richard Roeper. While the content was pertinent, James said he “couldn’t fit the Richard Roeper years in the film. It got in the way of a much stronger connection to be made between Gene Siskel’s death and the private way he handled it, and Roger’s decision to be more public about his cancer.” During each of Ebert’s unfolding heath issues, he published and made public his ongoing challenges.

James also mentioned he didn’t include anything about EbertFest, the film festival Ebert founded. “I thought it’d be too self-promotional, and imagined on some level Roger would have preferred that too, though it was an important part of his life and filmmakers loved that festival.”

Ebert passed away during production, and the film includes some heartrending moments when the otherwise ebullient man loses his resolve. When James began production, he says, “The expectation was not that Ebert was going to die, but that it was talking him longer than expected to get over his fractured hip. Even after the revelation his cancer had returned, Chaz would tell you he wasn’t going to be dying anytime soon.” James conducted the majority of the interviews of Ebert’s peers prior to his passing and thinks that was fortunate. Marlene Iglitzen, Gene Siskel’s wife, admitted she might have been less candid in she’d been interviewed after Ebert’s passing. “She’s one of the key candid voices of critique in the film and I was glad I’d interviewed her before. When someone dies it’s hard to be critical of him or her, especially in the aftermath of their death, without seeming callous.” He pauses, and adds “And I wouldn’t have blamed her in the least.”

This isn’t to say Life Itself isn’t full of some fairly comical misbehavior. James says the film addresses Ebert’s “shortcomings and his ego and immaturity—especially how he was with Siskel. He evolved as a human being so in his later years with Chaz we saw how he coped with surgery and became larger than life, but in the earlier years he was a man with ambition and competitiveness. He dated prostitutes and gold diggers. To see how he went through it was quite heroic, but he’d been a lot in his life.” And, with his film, James helps Ebert endure even in the hereafter.

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