For years I’ve thought of all the people living, Roger Ebert would be the one I’d most like to have dinner with. For all the years I’ve been watching and reading him, he seems to be endlessly fascinating, candid, and a raconteur of considerable talent. Ironically, he can not now eat, drink, or speak, but he can still write, and for that we can be thankful for.
His delightful and chatty memoir, Life Itself, is less about movies than about the critic. Ebert has written volumes about the movies, his favorites and least favorites, so that there is actually not that much about movies themselves in this book is to be understood. Instead it is about his life, with occasional intersections with those from the movies, and a little bit about his philosophy of film criticism.
“I was born inside the movie of my life,” he writes. “I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me. At first the frames flicker without connection, as they do in Bergman’s Persona after the film breaks and begins again.” Born in Urbana, Illinois in 1942, Ebert was an only child and a late child. His father died of lung cancer just after Roger graduated from high school. His mother became an alcoholic, as did Ebert, and the two had a complicated relationship. He realized at one point he would never be able to marry until after his mother died.
Ebert always wanted to be a newspaperman. As a teenager he asked a question of vice-presidential candidate Estes Kefauver. At the University of Illinois he would become the editor of the Daily Illini: “As editor, I was a case study. I was tactless, egotistical, merciless, and a showboat. Against those character flaws I balanced the gift of writing well, a good sense for page layout, and ability as a talent scout.”
He would end up getting hired at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1965, where he is still an employee. He loved the life of a newspaperman, and why not with moments like these: “I’d been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in the eye-opener place. I was a newspaperman. A Blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio…This at last was life.”
In 1967, without any warning, Ebert was named film critic. He’d always loved the movies, and he details with great joy his experiences of going to movies as a kid. He basically learned on the job, and shares some of the things he’s learned: “‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damned thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me a half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.”
As a film critic, Ebert’s maxim is: “‘I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.’ That was useful, and from another critic I found a talisman. Within a day after Zonka gave me the job, I read The Immediate Experience by Robert Warshow. He wrote, ‘A man watches a movie, and the critic must ackknowledge that he is that man.’ By this he meant that the critic has to set aside theory and ideology, theology and politics, and open himself to–well, the immediate experience.”
Though the book is assembled chronologically, much of it is arranged by theme. Instead of writing about things year by year, he has chapters based on different people in his life. He gets lost with Robert Mitchum in Pittsburgh: “Robert Mitchum didn’t give a damn what anybody thought about him. He never seemed to be making the slightest effort to be a movie star. But of the stars I met in my early years on the job, he was the most iconic, the most fascinating. That fits into my theory that true movie stars must be established in our minds well before we reach a certain age, perhaps seventeen.”
Ebert also writes about Lee Marvin, Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman: “At the Cannes Film Festival one year, Ingmar was talking about David Lean. ‘What kind of crew do you use?’ Lean asked him. ‘I make my films with eighteen good friends,’ said Ingmar. ‘That’s interesting,’ said Lean. ‘I make mine with one hundred and fifty enemies.” Woody Allen: “To talk with Woody was like catching up with your smart college roommate every time you went to New York, and he reminded you that he had gone ahead and accomplished all the things you had talked about in school. He has averaged a film a year for more than forty years. Some were great, all were intelligent, none were shabby.”
One wild chapter is on Ebert’s great friend Russ Meyer, and how he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. “Our conversation inevitably turned to large breasts, which we were both in favor of.” The chapter continues with their talks with the Sex Pistols on making a film, which sadly never happened.
Ebert avoids no personal issues. He talks about old girlfriends, his great love of his wife, Chaz, and his alcoholism. “In August 1979, I took my last drink. It was about four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, the hot sun streaming through the windows of my little carriage house behind the Four Farthings on Dickens. I put a glass of scotch and soda down on the living room table, went to bed, and pulled the blankets over my head. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
He writes about his favorite places around the world, especially London (I did not know that he wrote a book called The Perfect London Walk). He writes about old colleagues and friends, and his old hangouts. Of course he devotes a chapter to Gene Siskel, who started as a rival, and ended up as a devoted friend–with a caveat: “We were linked in a bond beyond all disputing. ‘You may be an asshole,’ Gene would say, ‘but you’re my asshole.'”
And of course he writes about his debilitating health problems, which started with cancer in the salivary gland and ended with the removal of part of his jaw, and failed attempts at reconstructive surgery. But he assigns no blame to his doctors, and remains resolutely cheerful. He assures us he is in good health, and reminds us we are all dying incremently.
This was great fun to read, but I do have some criticisms. Early chapters go into great detail on all of Ebert’s cousins, nieces and nephews, etc., which seems unnecessary and a bit like a guy going over the photos in a family album. At times there’s too much name-dropping, and the book could have used some better editing, as certain things are repeated (some of these chapters first appeared on their own on his blog, so perhaps that is the reason, but an editor should have smoothed them out).
But those are minor quibbles. Anyone who has ever listened to or read Roger Ebert with a smile would enjoy Life Itself.