Critical Intent: Roger Ebert's Life on Film

A new movie from the director of 'Hoop Dreams' looks at the personal passions, professional career and untimely passing of America's best-known film critic

Roger Ebert
Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images
Roger Ebert
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On a December morning, in 2012, Steve James walked into a patient's room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and immediately felt remorse. With his lower jaw removed from several surgeries related to a 11-year battle with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, Roger Ebert, the iconic film critic, was all strung up, looking rather helpless, sound asleep. "I remember looking [at him] and going, Aw shit, I dunno," the filmmaker recalls of the emotional first day of shooting Life Itself, his documentary on Ebert. "I don't know how people are going to feel about this. Then he woke up, and he smiled. And it was like, Oh my god! Despite all this guy's been through, he's still Roger."

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It's this push and pull between sympathy and acceptance, celebration and reverie that gives Life Itself its moving and, at times, overwhelming pulse. Spurred into action by Ebert's 2011 memoir of the same name, the intimate documentary principally follows the critic during the last four months of his life: in the hospital rehabbing a hip fracture; learning his cancer has returned and spread to his spine; spending tender, private moments with his wife Chaz amid the chaos. (Ebert passed away on April 4th, 2013, at age 70.) It was essential to the film, James says, to follow the Chicago Sun Times critic's "life in the present and use that as a springboard to the past." To that end, shots of Roger in the film's present – undergoing physical therapy and joking with James via a computer voice he dubbed "Alex" – are intercut with vintage photos and video, most narrated by an eerily similar Ebert voice-mimic. The effect illuminates the man's life from delivering papers as a kid in his native Urbana, Illinois to becoming a prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and one-half of the nationally-syndicated TV show, At the Movies, with fellow film critic Gene Siskel. 

Producer and longtime friend Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, Moneyball) first approached Ebert and Chaz about making the film, in 2012. The couple had major reservations. They were put at ease, however, upon learning James would be directing. Roger's longtime colleague and friend, Martin Scorsese, also signed on as executive producer. "When Steve James came to me and told me that he was making Life Itself, I didn't just want to be a part of it," Scorcese tells Rolling Stone via email. "I wanted to get on board and help get it finished and seen." The acclaimed filmmaker, who praises Ebert in the film alongside such other film luminaries as Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, recalls the critic giving him the first "real strong encouragement" for his 1967 film Who's That Knocking at my Door. Even more important, Scorsese credits Ebert with helping rescue him from drugs and depression in the Eighties by simply presenting him with an honorary award at a film festival in Toronto. "I didn't feel inhibited with Roger," says the director.

"It's tough for anybody, whether you're known or not, to let people in that way at that point in your life when your health is that fragile," says James, whose Academy Award-nominated 1994 documentary, Hoop Dreams, was named the best movie of the 1990s by Ebert. "But it's unbelievably rare for that to be a famous person and not control it at all in some way."

"We didn't think it made any sense to make a movie if we weren't going to give the filmmaker full access," Chaz explains of hers and Roger's decision to let James film Roger in even his most vulnerable state, including when he received suction through his throat. "It's not that we didn't have any reservations about it. As a person you always have reservations about someone just coming in and following you around with a camera and going into very sensitive and private aspects of your life. But once we gave the approval, we said ‘We're all in.'"

In making the film, James felt it critical to not idolize his subject or gloss over Roger's demons — notably a longtime struggle with alcoholism ("He would walk home late at night after [binge-drinking] and he'd wish he was dead," a former At the Movies producer recalls in the film), an occasionally sadistic streak, and an initial lack of luck with the fairer sex. (James was not able to include a particularly saucy vignette from the memoir about Ebert losing his virginity to a South African sex worker, "but we got a prostitute in nonetheless," he says, laughing.) He also homes in on the rocky, evolving relationship between Ebert and his longtime on-air partner, Siskel. What began as a competitive, if not contentious professional partnership, evolved into a deep and abiding friendship between the two men; Ebert glossed over his relationship with the late Siskel (he died of a brain tumor in 1999) in his memoir, but James says he "knew that was going to be a real centerpiece of the movie."

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"I didn't even know how special our relationship would seem to people, because it's something we felt and lived with every day," Chaz admits. "It's not that we took it for granted – we knew it was wonderful – but it's pretty amazing to me what people see when they see that relationship onscreen. I wasn't prepared for that." The biggest compliment to the film though, according to all those involved, is the across-the-board belief that Roger would have been himself impressed with it. "It's a picture that I know Roger himself would have loved," Scorsese contends. 

Chaz concurs. "I still talk to Roger. And I say, You're modest. I know that. But you would be so pleased with how this film is being received." She stops momentarily, fighting back tears. "It's a gift. Thank you for that gift you left to all of us."