FOR MANY PEOPLE, Roger Ebert was, is, and always will be a television personality. Television images are hard to shake, particularly when they’re nationally syndicated. Ebert’s show — co-hosted first, and most famously, with Gene Siskel, and later with Richard Roeper — could make or break a flick. It defined film criticism for over a decade, transforming it, to the frustration of anyone who considered criticism an exalted and solitary and written practice, into a popular onscreen pastime for two, comprehensible to most anyone, and condensable into a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” The show also defined Ebert in our minds: blazers, sweater vests, oxford shirts, unmoving eyes behind glasses, authoritative but dryly delivered pronouncements. Ebert was Costello to co-host Siskel’s Abbott: shorter, heavier, rounder.
Since Ebert’s prime, everything has changed: television is facing death by a thousand channels, TiVos, and webisodes; film criticism has become largely crowdsourced; and, most devastatingly, thyroid cancer has drastically narrowed Ebert’s face and taken his ability to speak, leaving him only the written word with which to communicate. But that’s plenty. Life Itself, a beautiful memoir of staccato sentences and chapters, covers the height of Ebert’s televised fame and the transition of his medium, his industry, and his health, and it shows that the heart of Ebert’s life lies offscreen.
Ebert began as a writer and remained a writer. He practiced journalism alongside Chicago Sun-Times legends like Jim Hoge and Mike Royko. He wrote deadpan new journalism-style interviews for Esquire, where he astutely championed a first-time filmmaker named Martin Scorsese. He collaborated with Russ Meyer on the cult hit Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and other films. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer, and he’s written voluminously: film guides, yes, but also a novel, a history of the University of Illinois, a walking guide to London, a copious blog, and now a memoir culled from that blog, sometimes word-for-word. As a result, Life Itself suffers occasionally from a sense of pastiche: some chapters seem thrown in for little reason, like a discussion of Ebert’s book collection, which fails to capture his genuine passion for the written word as wisely as his discussions elsewhere about, say, discovering Thomas Wolfe as a child, or being haunted and healed by Cormac McCarthy after surgery. Indeed, the book’s best moments, though well discussed on Ebert’s blog, are what TV’s constraints forced him to exile: the Midwestern childhood and the devastation of disease.
For fans of Ebert the celebrity, there are some big Hollywood names, the ones with whom Ebert got closer than the critic-subject relationship generally allows: Russ Meyer, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. (Other bold-face names — Coppola, Oprah, fellow critics Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris — only flit by.) Most of his discussion of the movies falls in an early chapter guilelessly titled “My New Job.” Ebert arrived to criticism, as most critics do, unintentionally, via a transfer from the sports desk. He was twenty-five, and the American New Wave was getting under way. Kael had just started at the New Yorker. Ornate old theaters still ruled Chicago’s Loop. He studied up by reading reviews in Esquire and Time and, when he got the chance, by sitting down with directors like Norman Jewison and Otto Preminger and having them dissect their work, shot by shot. His first review was of the French film Galia, which he wrote was “one more last gasp of the New Wave.” The older and wiser Ebert reproves himself here: “I was more jaded then than I am now.”
Older Ebert knows that he likes movies about “Good People” (capitalization his). He likes being frightened in a Hitchcock, not Hostel, sort of way. He misses the sense of audience — thousands in a theater, the old norm — and the sense of wonder. Though he knows that good movies are timeless, he expresses an acute sense of the passage of an era in film, one that he defined by his criticism and lived by his journalism, when everything and everyone in Hollywood were a little bolder, when power was in the hands of neither the studio system nor the global conglomerates. Mitchum, who survived the studio system and was one of those rare true celebrity rebels, is Ebert’s favorite, which corresponds to his theory that “true movie stars must be established in our minds well before we reach a certain age, perhaps seventeen.”
He may have lived Hollywood’s best and most powerful years, but Ebert is “beneath everything else a fan.” Other than in the “New Job” chapter, movies appear in his life the way they would in any fan’s: as backdrop, analogy, or comfort. The movie theaters and drive-ins of his youth, brought to electric life with short, sharp sentences, are less about the movies and more about summer, cars, friends, and weekly performances by someone called Dan-Dan the Yo-Yo Man. Because Ebert has loved and lost old pets, movies with dogs, any and all dogs, invariably make him think, “I want that dog… I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.” Because he once won an egg-eating contest (twenty-six eggs) he sympathizes with the title character of Cool Hand Luke, who ate 50. He understands, from long and parallel consideration when he was a boy, Harvey Keitel’s character’s loss of his Catholic faith in Mean Streets. And in his illness, he is consoled not by comedies but by the “existential dread” of Ingmar Bergman films.
Though it’s not ultimately about movies or a career critiquing them, the memoir sometimes reads as though Ebert is watching his life. He steps in to crack droll jokes and make heartfelt single-sentence admissions, but other people do most of the talking and the acting and the moving. Life happens to him, Ebert admits. That sort of feeling is often inspired by disease and addiction, and Ebert suffers both: he talks of his alcoholism with an admirable absence of drama and without even the expected arc of large-living and rock-bottoming. But film criticism also “happened” to Ebert, and so did television, his friendship with Siskel, and his Midwestern childhood. That childhood, in particular, gleams cinematically; Ebert says at one point, “it was like a cliché from the movies.” Maybe, but it is remembered as lovingly and attentively as a camera could:
We drove north for a fishing trip, the two men in the family, who had never been fishing together in our lives. I guessed I was about to be told the facts of life, which I already knew from a leaflet hidden in the night table of my friend Jerry Seilor’s father, who was never able to bring himself to give it to him. No facts were mentioned in Wisconsin. The resort was small and inexpensive, with stuffed deer heads and painted sunsets on the walls. I remember little about the food except that my father carefully counted the courses. Combination salad. Split pea soup. Cottage cheese with chives. We rented a boat and fishing tackle and sat upon the glassy lake in the sun. The weather was one degree above cool. I don’t remember if we caught anything. I remember our contented silence together, the smoke from his Luckies, the hiss when a spent cigarette would hit the water, the songs from our portable radio: “The Wayward Wind.” “Oh, Mein Papa,” by Eddie Fisher. ”That makes me think about my father,” he said.
“I was born inside the movie of my life,” Ebert writes in the book’s memorable first sentence. He didn’t start it or make it; he lived and he watched. Life Itself is made up of the key scenes from that movie, retold — like those quick plot summaries that once opened Siskel & Ebert — by a well-honed voice, familiar sounding, even though silent.