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Life Itself

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Steve James offers an affecting portrait of the first person in history to earn a Pulitzer — not to mention more than $1 million per year — for going to the movies
  • Steve James offers an affecting portrait of the first person in history to earn a Pulitzer — not to mention more than $1 million per year — for going to the movies

Mysteries of the ages: How were the pyramids engineered? What became of Amelia Earhart? Did Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel really hate each other? Among the many reasons to celebrate that Steve James (Hoop Dreams) adapted Ebert's 2011 memoir as he did and precisely when he did — the film critic passed away last year — is that the answer to that question is finally revealed. Like much of this movie, the truth proves surprising, complicated and more than a little moving.

Like a generation of film critics, I learned there was such a thing as a film critic by watching "Sneak Previews." The show debuted in 1975, the year Ebert became the first movie reviewer to win a Pulitzer. Across from him sat a man with thinning hair and a twinkle in his eye.

The program was a revelation. You mean it's possible to get paid to tell people about movies — and on television? That was it. My plans for a career in the world of high finance went out the window.

I suspect Life Itself will appeal to two completely different audiences: people for whom these unlikely media superstars were role models, and people who simply enjoyed their take on the weekend's new titles. We follow Ebert's odyssey from editor of his Illinois college paper and his years as a hard-drinking newspaper man at the Chicago Sun-Times through his joining of Alcoholics Anonymous and rise to pop culture eminence.

The doc's talking heads comprise a who's who of movie royalty. Errol Morris credits his career to Ebert's championing of his work. Ditto Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese; the latter tears up recounting how Siskel and Ebert not only discovered him but saved him from coke addiction and depression.

Many scenes were shot during one of Ebert's last hospital stays, and a number offer a cringe-inducing twist on the term "star treatment." Ebert insisted James include everything in the documentary, even the grueling irrigation procedures he underwent to clear his throat during his cancer treatment. "This is not only your film," Ebert reminded the director in an email.

I'm leaving out a lot, because I want to get to the best part. The film tells two really great love stories. At 50, Ebert met his life-mate, Chaz, an African American civil rights lawyer. We come to understand the degree to which absorption into her extended family transformed and recharged him. Today she's guardian of the website that houses and continues Ebert's life's work by providing a home for new voices.

The other love story brings us back to Siskel (who deserves a biopic of his own). James wisely devotes much of his movie to the relationship between the rivals. Footage of the pair snarking, denigrating and nearly coming to blows in their early TV days is borderline shocking. Yes, they really did hate each other.

Until they didn't. Over time, the two became famous, influential and fabulously rich — earning $1 million per season at the show's peak. Even more improbably, they became friends. Siskel's widow recalls that he kept his terminal brain cancer a secret because he didn't want to worry his kids, and James drives home the devastation of the unexpected 1999 loss for Ebert, who vowed that, should anything like that happen to him, he'd hide nothing.

Sadly, something did, and so we have Life Itself. One can debate Ebert's impact on the movie industry. A case can be made that he and Siskel let the barbarians through the gates, that they sat on their thumbs as Hollywood dumbed things down irreversibly. What's undeniable, though, is that Ebert took criticism where nobody had taken it before. This film reminded me how much I miss watching him do that.

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