Filmmaker Steve James knows firsthand how much power the late Roger Ebert wielded as movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and “Siskel & Ebert.”
Back in January of 1994, while the Sundance Film Festival was still underway, Ebert went on his syndicated show and sang the praises of “Hoop Dreams,” James’ directorial debut about two inner-city high-schoolers dreaming of basketball glory.
“Roger had an incredible impact on my movie,” recalls James. “He and Gene Siskel reviewed it… and said it deserved theatrical distribution. That traveled all around the Festival. They’d never done anything like that before, and it was a huge shot in the arm for the film and its prospects.”
“Hoop Dreams” not only went on to land a distribution deal, but it was nominated for an Oscar as Best Documentary.
Now, two decades after the release of “Hoop Dreams,” James is back with “Life Itself,” an engrossing documentary portrait of Ebert. The movie opened in Philadelphia on July 4 and is now available on VOD.
Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, the film was shot during the last four months of the critic’s life. In 2006, Ebert was diagnosed with cancer and, through the years, had lost much of his jaw – as well as his ability to eat and speak – to the disease. He died in 2013.
The documentary began filming in Dec. 2012, just as Ebert’s wife Chaz had taken him to a Chicago rehab hospital for a hairline hip fracture. When he was X-rayed, doctors discovered that his cancer had spread to his spine.
Moving back and forth in time, just as Ebert’s book does, “Life Itself” chronicles Ebert’s early years at the Sun-Times, his tenure as a screenwriter for B-movie king Russ Meyer, his complicated relationship with Siskel, and his advocacy of filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”).
James thinks of “Life Itself” as a love story on several different levels.
“I think it’s about Roger’s love affair with movies,” notes the filmmaker. “But it’s also about his love affair with Chicago and his tortured love affair with Gene Siskel.
“And, most profoundly, it’s about his love affair with Chaz. Roger loved life. As he says in the [documentary], he viewed his life as a movie that was ever unfolding. He didn’t know where it would take him, but he was along for the ride.
“When Roger is trying to make peace with dying, he says to Chaz, ‘I’ve had a great life.’ And, boy, did that apply.”
Even though Ebert participated in the filming, he was adamant that James be given final cut over the film. Ebert didn’t want a whitewashed portrait – and James doesn’t deliver one.
“I think Roger knew from the get-go that it had to be a real documentary,” says James. “Roger knew what he prized in documentaries that he loved, and that was candor, honesty, and intimacy. And he wanted this film to be no different, even though he was the subject.”
Indeed, one of the reasons “Life Itself” is so absorbing is that it’s a warts and all look at the critic.
“I’m not fascinated with Roger because he was a great critic and an all-around great guy to so many people,” notes James. “I’m fascinated with Roger because he was all of that, and also he was once an alcoholic and he was a guy who loved big-breasted women so much that he fell in with Russ Meyer.
“He could be a know-it-all and argumentative, and then turn around and be the most generous grandfather to his step-grandchildren. I liked all of that about him, and that’s what made him so fascinating to me.”
In his dealings with Siskel, Ebert comes off as particularly petty and ego-driven. In his book, Ebert devotes a single chapter to Siskel. But in the movie, James digs deeply into the relationship, which was fueled by equal parts jealousy and respect.
“I think, outside of Chaz, Gene Siskel was the most central relationship in Roger’s life,” says James. “I think Roger’s relationship with Gene revealed many things about Roger, and not all of them positive.
“It revealed the competitive streak, the toughness, the pettiness, but it also revealed that Roger was capable of a kind of hard-earned love. It was a love that took years to arrive at. So it was relationship which helped Roger grow up.”
James illustrates Ebert’s love affair with movies by showing clips of some of the critics favorite films, including “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Cries and Whispers,” and “The Tree of Life.”
There are also some fascinating surprises in the movie, including footage of Siskel as something of an adopted son of Hugh Hefner, and the revelation that Ebert and Chaz first met at Alcoholics Anonymous.
One of the most surprising chapters of the film involves Martin Scorsese, who nearly breaks down in tears as he recalls an incident in which Siskel and Ebert gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Battling cocaine addiction at the time, Scorsese was in such bad shape that he wasn’t certain he could walk up on the stage to accept the prize. He did and, in retrospect, counts that moment as a much-needed validation of his talent.
“It was great to have Scorsese share that story with us,” says James. “I think it showed how much Roger and Gene’s opinion meant to Scorsese and his own sense of self-worth.”
Another segment that’s sure to strike a chord with audiences is a sequence in which Chaz loses her patience with Ebert who, just home from the hospital, refuses to climb up a few stairs to their apartment.
It’s a very human moment that neither Roger nor Chaz asked James to remove from the film.
“Roger and Chaz’s relationship tends to be idealized,” says James. “And for good reason. It was a remarkable marriage between two extraordinary people. But even in their marriage, there were [testy] moments. That’s important for people to see.”
While illness is presented honestly in the movie, “Life Itself” is far from a downer.
“I hope audiences realize that the movie is quite funny and entertaining,” says James. “Yes, Roger’s life, in those last years, was marked by a lot of medical travails. But even during those last four months, he found a way to laugh and crack jokes.
“So, yes, this movie has its poignant moments and, yes, he dies at the end. And there’s no getting around that. But I hope people come out of the movie appreciating what a rich and vivid life he lived.”