When Roger Ebert passed away last April the web saw an outpouring of tributes and well wishes normally reserved for the most beloved heads of state. Ebert’s final years were plagued with pain and peril, such as the advanced cancer that deformed his face, and took away his voice, thus ending his twenty-five plus year run of being a television show host of a major film criticism program. Although it took away his actual physical voice, that loss lead him to focus even more on refining his inner voice. Through his blog and his twitter account he connected to an entire new generation of fans, and also deepened his following among those, such as myself who had formerly only known him as the fat guy who argued with the tall skinny guy about movies on TV. Whether or not you agreed with his politics or philosophy, you could not help but be won over by his infectious humanity. In this book near the end he mentions that “kindness” covers all of his political beliefs, and you could truly see that lived out in his final years.
I had ordered this book shortly before the passing of Mr. Ebert, being a long time fan of his writing style, and follower of his opinions through his blog. By the time the book had been mailed to my house though, Roger had finally succumbed to his half decade long battle with throat cancer. It sat there on my bookstand for many months before I could find the will to pick it up, and I tried to read it as slowly as I could as in a way, once the book was over, it was like my long relationship with Mr. Ebert, even though we never formally met, would also be over. His final blog entry entitled “A Leave of Presence” showed a Roger who was just getting ready to enjoy a sort of semi-retirement, with a revamped website and the ability to finally only review the movies that he wanted to. Alas though, it was not to be. Few celebrity deaths hit me as hard as Ebert’s did. He had become part of my daily and weekly ritual. Whenever I watch a movie I think he might have seen I automatically search to see the review. We don’t always agree on everything, which would be weird and troubling if we did, but his passion for movies and the greater purpose of cinema to expand the human mind and enrich its collective soul was truly captivating.
He begins this book talking about his Childhood in upstate Illinois in the suburb of Urbana, and takes us all the way through his life journey, in a kaleidoscopic kind of way. This book was inspired by his involvement with his personal blog so many of the chapters are simply re-worked and expanded blog entries. That slightly hurts the quality of the book in places as I find I’ve heard a good deal of these stories and anecdotes before, but there’s more than enough here to make up for that. Also, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not in the aforementioned kaleidoscopic way of telling his life story, but many of the same facts get reiterated throughout the book as if it was the first time they had been told, which again, slightly hampered my enjoyment of the book, but not enough to even think of lowering its overall star rating.
Among my absolute favorite parts of Life Itself was hearing Ebert talk about his many visits to London and his favorite, now sadly demolished, hotel that he stayed in while there called the Eyrie Mansion. Reading about his enjoyment of this hotel was as good as the best movie review he ever wrote. I could almost literally hear the crackle of the fireplace in his description and longed to meet the Dickensian characters that ran that establishment. To me these are the highlights of the book. If there’s one thing Ebert was always good about it was writing about the things that brought him enjoyment. A whole chapter here is devoted to his love of Steak N’ Shake for instance, and far from a throw-away chapter, it deeply resonated with me as a commentary on the time and place that Ebert grew up in. And given the décor and theme of Steak N’ Shake, one can easily see why that particular chain would be so appealing to him.
Many other personal stories are shared in this book such as how Roger got started in journalism in his local newspaper, his college career, and eventually his job at the Chicago Sun-Times and his placement in the movie review department. Many great stories are told about local places and personalities in Chicago that he came across during his life there, and more stories about fellow great writers like Studs Terkel among others. He also opens up about his alcoholism and how he eventually overcame it with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. He goes into detail about his tumultuous relationship with his mother and other uncomfortable issues with refreshing honesty. He states in the book that he only intends to write his life story once, so there’s no use in making it fictional.
A good chunk of the book is spent on Ebert’s famous interviews with people such as Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and others. Ebert writes that his interview style was simply to let the interviewed party feel like he wasn’t there so he would capture the person in his natural setting talking about the things that they wanted to talk about. A surprisingly small chunk of the book goes into detailing how his partnership and rivalry with his friend Gene Siskel came about and how they developed and sustained their great chemistry together. He laments in the book that he wishes Gene were still here because he would have known the perfect way in which to make fun of his then current condition without going overboard.
By the end of his career Roger Ebert had won many awards, including Emmys, Pulitzer prizes, and other assorted lifetime achievement awards, but the prize he says he was the most proud of was the essay contest he won while still in high school that shortly preceded his father’s death. My lasting images of Ebert after reading this book will be that, and the image of him with his beloved wife Chaz riding around in his prized Studebaker , and the young child who stayed up late at night reading Thomas Wolfe novels, burning with the desire to be a writer himself one day, a task he more than thoroughly accomplished.
Life Itself gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.