Roger Ebert is inarguably one of the most brilliant film critics in history, so it’s only fair that somebody finally made a great movie about him. The documentary Life Itself – directed by Steve James – rolls out to theaters across America this month. It traces his entire life, from his early days writing for the Chicago Sun-Times to the creation of his 1970 cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to his long (and often contentious) relationship with Gene Siskel.
The arguments between Siskel and Ebert are the stuff of legend. There was a lot of mutual respect between the two movie critics, but there were also a lot of amazing fights that made for television gold. Both men died tragically young, but a website has been set up that hosts countless hours of their television show. One of our favorites is their original take on The Big Lebowski. At the time, many saw the movie as a disappointing follow-up to Fargo and it was years away from becoming a cult classic.
Gene Siskel was far from impressed. “I just think the humor is uninspired,” he said. “Jeff Bridges plays a too self-consciously created character named Jeff Lebowski, a laid-back ’80s dude in surfer shorts…Isn’t kidnapping for ransom a tired plot these days? Kingpin was a much funnier film set in the world of bowling. Jeff Bridges’ character wasn’t worth my time. There’s no heart to him like, say, the Frances McDormand character in Fargo. The Big Lebowski, a big disappointment.”
To his infinite credit, Ebert got the movie immediately. “Of course the kidnapping is cliche,” he said. “I think what the Coen Brothers are doing is satirizing a plot like that by attacking it through these woefully comic and incompetent characters who are adrift and way out of their element here. That’s what’s funny.”
It was probably inadvertent, but right there Ebert became the first person to work a Big Lebowski quote into conversation by saying the characters were “out of their element.” Bravo.