It was the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who wittily offered what once flourished as a cultural law: No one ever erected a statue to a critic.
No more. The late Roger Ebert has forever erased Sibelius’ Law from civilization’s books. There’s a statue of him in his hometown of Urbana, Ill. – one designed to be interactive, no less. (You can sit on a bench on either side of him with thumb upraised and, if you like, have your picture taken next to him.) A bronze plaque sits in front of his childhood home in Urbana. And yes, Ebert has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A good argument could be made that none of those were “erected” in honor of a critic, but rather in honor of a TV star who was happy to appear everywhere as the plus-sized one in a squabbling, thumb-flinging Laurel and Hardy TV act (see the accompanying piece).
Maybe that’s true. Maybe not. I choose now to think otherwise. So does Steve James’ extraordinarily fine documentary film “Life Itself,” which takes its title from Ebert’s memoir but, unavoidably and tragically continues far beyond his autobiography’s contents right to the very moment of his death.
It is there that no qualification or stinting is possible in admiration for this documentary film by James or its two main subjects: Roger Ebert and his wife, Chaz.
Needless to say, it wasn’t planned as a memorial. When Ebert and the director of the documentary “Hoop Dreams,” which Ebert much admired, projected a film version of Ebert’s memoir of his horrific final illness, it wasn’t going to appear posthumously. But the neck cancer that so cruelly took his entire lower jaw and left him unable to either speak or eat, had metastasized and was on its final march to take Ebert with it.
It is there that “Life Itself” becomes heroic – no other word suits, I think. All over America, this is a familiar story – families ravaged by the terrible slow-motion hardships and sufferings of death by cancer. Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and truth-teller to the very end, insisted that his cinematic documentarian not hide behind cinematic euphemism. The sight of his face without his lower jaw is constant through the film. Twice, we see the terribly uncomfortable process of a nurse suctioning saliva after its buildup. Droplets of it are omnipresent on his chin. (In life, he wore a bandanna around his throat whose Western outlaw appearance he joked about in his ruthlessly candid blog.)
It is the searing candor of his wife, Chaz, you’re unlikely to forget – the time he passed her a written note imploring her to kill him; the final – and probably inevitable – difference of opinion which led to the end of his suffering at the age of 70.
This woman, whose incredible and supportive role in Ebert’s life is lovingly limned throughout the film (he married, for the first time, at 50) could have left so much of this in darkness. Instead, she shares her husband’s ethic and gets it out there. We even see their disagreements, those inevitable moments when a fatally ill man who can’t talk and a loving caretaker clash over the interminable indignities of a failing body.
There is much that even a terminal skeptic about Ebert can learn here – that, for instance, he was the editor of the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini school paper when John F. Kennedy was shot and insisted on press stoppage because of a horrifically tactless ad placement.
We’ve always known that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about American lives and their second-act possibilities.
But I’d submit that Ebert’s life was singular and beyond mere rarity. It began, perhaps, with the overpraise of a Pulitzer Prize at the age of 33. And it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. His fame and reputation kept getting bigger – taking one gigantic leap after Gene Siskel’s death ended the public pillow fight some of us hated so much and another, magnificent and indelible one when a terrible illness took his speech but turned him into one of the noblest continuing written defenders of American journalism in its digital travails.
His written work after physical speech was denied him was not only the best of his life but uniquely admirable and inspiring in his chosen and beloved profession.
He’d come a long way from the alcoholic with legendarily bad taste in women, but good taste in bars. He could have just ended as a roistering and entertaining Chicago journalism legend a la Ben Hecht and Mike Royko. He ended as something incomparably larger.
They erect statues to such people. And make films too, unsparing and as often inspiring as this one.
Director: Steve James
Running time: 115 minutes
Rating: R for nudity and language.
The Lowdown: Documentary about the life and final ravaged months of Roger Ebert, based on his memoir of the same name.