Thanks largely to the popular US review show in which he and Gene Siskel bickered about the week’s new films, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, was probably the most widely recognised film critic in the world.
He was no angel — at the height of his celebrity he expected to be treated like a Hollywood star — but when he died from cancer last year his fame was only increased by the indomitable way he fought a crippling illness. He became unable to talk or even eat properly after part of his lower jaw had to be removed, but he continued to visit Cannes and to write both in his paper and on social media. A hip fracture, also caused by cancer, eventually laid him low and he died at the age of 70.
One of the many who had cause to thank him for his enthusiastic support was Steve James, whose 1994 basketball documentary, Hoop Dreams, was a film that Ebert loved. Life Itself, an affectionate but not entirely hagiographic portrait of Ebert and companion piece to the critic’s own book, is James’s means of thanks.
The documentary details Ebert’s life, which includes his early struggle with alcoholism, his foray into screenwriting for Russ Meyer’s extraordinary and weird Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning criticism.
All this is interspersed with scenes of Ebert in hospital ministered to not only by doctors but also by his equally determined wife, Chaz, an American lawyer without whom he could never have lasted as long as he did.
It isn’t surprising that film-makers like Martin Scorsese sung his praises and I have to say he was generous to me, giving as much publicity as he could to my book A Century of Films and annually publishing my odds as a bookmaker on which film might win at Cannes.
Ebert was a very good and even-handed critic, capable of appreciating many films most American critics would ignore. He fully deserves this warm, well structured and affecting tribute as someone who lived a full life and refused to be afraid of dying.