I didn’t always appreciate Roger Ebert. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when he and Gene Siskel were America’s most ubiquitous critical presence, I didn’t give either the thumbs-up as a reviewer. But over time, and through illness, Ebert’s steady presence grew on me. Whether you agreed with his verdict on a particular film or not, if you were a film lover you had to respect his dedication to the craft, the cause, of movies.
But you don’t have to be a cinephile to enjoy Ebert’s Life Itself, a memoir that encompasses American childhood in the 40s and 50s, the adventures of a budding journalist, rousing encounters with Chicago writers, film stars of many ages, his long-time television partner Siskel and other celebrities, fascinating travelogues of London, Cannes, and other locations, a battle with alcoholism, and a lovely paeon to the wife he married at 50, Chaz Hammelsmith. If you experienced the 20th century, there’s probably more than one section in this book to which you will relate.
Now that he’s gone, Ebert’s memoir takes on special meaning, as it depicts his various struggles with the throat cancer that would ultimately take his life. Ebert faced his disfiguring illness with an earthiness, an optimism and humor that are inspirational. Ultimately, it’s these qualities, and Ebert’s quirky and gently opinionated outlook on Life Itself that make this a memoir for the ages.
As a pairing, look for the wonderful 2014 documentary biographical film by the same title, directed by Steve James (who also directed one of my all-time favorite documentaries Hoop Dreams).