“Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves,” Roger Ebert writes in his new memoir, “Life Itself.” In the book, Ebert documents the waves he has regarded throughout his life: his long career at The Chicago Sun-Times; his friendship with the late, great Gene Siskel; his marriage to the magnificently patient Chaz. All of these topics are covered in a book that lets viewers inside the life of one of America’s most prolific movie critics.
As a movie critic who writes for Big Hollywood, I should note my respect and admiration for Roger Ebert. Growing up, I loved watching his weekly program with Gene Siskel, in which they critiqued and discussed current cinema. I loved the movies and dreamed of sitting on the balcony with them watching films unfold in front of us.
It is with this mindset that I read Ebert’s memoir, knowing how much I appreciated Ebert’s work but realizing that I knew very little about the man himself.
For instance, I didn’t know the depths of Ebert’s political views before reading this book. I knew that Ebert can be demeaning to conservatives on Twitter but I didn’t realize how much of a diehard liberal he is. His father, as Ebert writes, was “militantly pro-union” and had Roger “worried when Eisenhower defeated Stevenson the second time.” Ebert adds, “He never said so, but I got the notion that the Republicans were not good people.” It’s not surprising then that Ebert eventually donated a dollar to liberal activist Tom Hayden and was handed a membership card for Students for a Democratic Society. Although I disagree with his ideology, it was interesting to see how Ebert’s partisanship took hold.
However, there are plenty of other anecdotes in Ebert’s book that feel a bit tiresome. During the early chapters focused on his writing career, Ebert introduces dozens of unremarkable characters who seem to appear briefly in the narrative and then quickly disappear. Those chapters drag on for too long but eventually lead to the best part of the book: Ebert’s thoughts on film itself.
When he arrives there, Ebert finds his voice. His prose is inspired. “The best movies aren’t about what happens to the characters,” he writes. “They’re about the example that they set.” Some of his thoughts on film are controversial but contain a lot of truth in them. “Compared to the great movie stars of the past, modern actors are handicapped by the fact that their films are shot in color.” He adds, “In the long run, that will rob most of them of the immortality that was obtained even by second-tier stars of the black-and-white era.”
A whole chapter in the book is dedicated to the rivalry between Ebert and his sparring partner, Gene Siskel. His love and admiration for Siskel shines through even though the two often made jokes about each other’s looks and behavior. Ebert writes at the end of Siskel’s chapter that the duo had spoken to Disney and ABC about a sitcom about dueling movie critics. The show was never developed. “Maybe the problem,” Ebert writes about the idea, “was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.”
If there is a hero in the story of Roger Ebert’s recent struggles with cancer, it is his wife Chaz. When Ebert got sick, Chaz stood by him. “She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind pushing me back from the grave.” In addition to being Ebert’s wife, Chaz also became “vice president of the Ebert Company” and handles many of Ebert’s business dealings. She also helped develop the show, “Ebert Presents At the Movies.”
Ebert writes that the legendary movie critic Pauline Kael once told him that after watching a movie, she would reflect on what she had felt and experienced during it.
If the same rules apply for criticizing books, I’d say that above all else, this book enlightened me. It has some flaws but for a young movie critic like me, it’s an informative memoir highlighting the importance of film and film-making written by a critic who has earned the admiration of millions of readers worldwide.
John Hanlon is a freelance movie and entertainment critic. He contributes regularly to Big Hollywood and has written for Townhall.com.