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Roger Ebert: A Real American Hero

July 4, 2014

It seems fitting that Life Itself, the new documentary based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, should be released to theaters and on-demand services on July 4. To me, the movie critic and TV star is a true American hero.

By that, I don’t mean he was a perfect man—and the refreshingly straightforward two-hour film made by Steve James (one of the directors Ebert championed, starting with his groundbreaking basketball documentary Hoop Dreams) doesn’t paint him as a plaster saint. Ebert could be “a big baby” (as one of the producers of his TV show calls him), especially when he’d clash with on-screen partner/nemesis Gene Siskel over matters of ego. He was prone to human weaknesses, overindulging in food, alcohol, and women who were, in the words of a pal, “golddiggers, opportunists or psychos.”

But Roger overcame his shortcomings; he met Chaz, the love of his life, at an AA meeting. Life Itself is a love story on many levels: It’s about Roger’s love of Chaz, who embodies the “in sickness and in health” vow by supporting Roger through the grueling battle with cancer that robbed him of his jaw, his voice and ultimately his life. “This woman never lost her love,” Roger says in the film. “Her love is like a wind pushing me back from the brink.” In turn, Chaz swore to him, “If you promise me you’ll give it your all, I promise to make your life as interesting as possible.”

The film is also about Roger’s love for Gene, whose widow explains how their rivalry gave way to profound respect and friendship. “I’m sick and old and find myself thinking about Gene more than ever,” Roger wrote to her not long before his own death, in one of many revealing emails shared in the film. “My stupid ego, and maybe his, complicated the fact that I never met a smarter or funnier man.” And, most of all, it’s about Roger’s love of movies.

Life Itself features heartfelt testimonials from the likes of Martin Scorsese (who produced the film along with Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian—and who credits Roger and Gene for saving not just his career but his life by giving him an award at the Toronto Film Festival at the depths of Scorsese’s coke-fueled ’80s flameout), Werner Herzog (who dedicated his Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World to Roger), Errol Morris (who admits he wouldn’t have a career if Roger and Gene hadn’t championed his pet-cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven) and Ava DuVernay (who met Roger when she was a little girl at a dress rehearsal for the Oscars and perhaps not coincidentally grew up to be a great filmmaker behind Middle of Nowhere and the upcoming MLK biopic Selma).

Roger befriended many of the filmmakers and stars he wrote about, but—like Jed Leland, the Citizen Kane critic—he never allowed his friendships to affect his film criticism. (He even trashed Scorsese’s The Color of Money shortly after giving the director that award.) Among the many classic clips James unearthed for the film was Ebert on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, sitting next to Chevy Chase as he panned Three Amigos!

Roger was a genuine embodiment of the American dream. The son of an electrician (who instilled Democratic, pro-union values in him) and a housewife, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, yet stayed at the working-class Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years, resisting the advances of professional suitors like The Washington Post‘s Ben Bradlee. His priceless explanation: “I’m not going to learn new streets!”

Never was Roger’s heroism more evident than in his valiant battle with cancer, which had taken Gene more than a decade earlier and to which Roger refused to surrender until he was ready to go on his own terms. “I consider my remaining days to be money in the bank,” he tells James, via his speaking computer keyboard, shortly before his 2013 death. “When I run out, I’ll be repossessed.” “I don’t know where he got his determination from,” Chaz says in an interview completed after he passed away. “He had an inner core of steel.”

Like another newspaperman immortalized at the movies, Roger Ebert was a real man of steel. And Life Itself is a film worthy of its superheroic subject.


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