Roger That 

Life Itself remembers the critic's critic

I last saw Roger Ebert in September 2011, at the movies, of course.

Seeing him took me back to decades earlier. An editor, trying to inspire me to write a movie review less about actors and more about acting, tossed me a copy of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a bestselling collection of essays by Pauline Kael, the then-high brow film critic for The New Yorker. It was heady stuff. A few weeks later, that same editor told me to forget about the Kael book and instead, pay more attention to a newspaper writer from Chicago who had just won the Pulitzer Prize, the first-ever Pulitzer for film criticism. Besides, my boss told me, this critic was a dyed-in-the-wool newspaperman.

That's how I always saw--and read--Roger Ebert: as a writer for a daily newspaper. I never really saw him as the co-star of Sneak Previews, the first-of-its-kind critic vs. critic television show, which pitted Ebert against his foil, Gene Siskel. I didn't see Ebert as a celebrity, in spite of the pair's countless appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson; I didn't even look at him as one of the "thumbs up" guys. For me, it was all about Ebert's writing.

All those years later, there he was, sitting a few feet away. I was at the Toronto International Film Festival and had settled into a lobby seat outside of a movie theater to blog about a film I had just watched. Ebert, with a great deal of assistance from his wife, had ever-so-slowly inched down into a nearby seat. He was clearly in pain. But there he was, still writing.

By that time, Ebert had already undergone several surgeries in an attempt to curb cancer in his thyroid and salivary glands (the surgeries would rob him of his ability to speak). Making matters worse, he had fractured his hip. In spite of all of that, with a cane in one hand, his wife's hand in the other, there he was: at the movies.

He would pass away 19 months later.

So, pardon my vulnerability while I enthuse over the documentary Life Itself, which marvelously chronicles the life of the gentle giant, whose thumb could turn a sleeper into a box-office champ.

"I was born inside the movie of my life," said Ebert, who narrates much of the film.

For a number of years before his death, Ebert knew he would not be long for this world--his first cancer diagnosis was in 2002--and fortunately, he recorded his autobiography and a number of his own essays before he lost his voice to disease.

"For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy," we hear Ebert say. "It lets you understand a little bit more about aspirations, hopes, dreams and fears."

Ebert's own hopes and dreams began in Urbana, Ill., where he started his own neighborhood newspaper at the age of 15. By the age of 25, he started writing for the Chicago Sun Times. But his life was far from rosy.

"My name is Roger, and I'm an alcoholic," Ebert wrote in August 1979, stunning his readers and vowing never to take another drink.

And then there was the man Ebert called his "professional enemy": Gene Siskel, a rival critic who worked "across the street" at the Chicago Tribune. When the two were paired together in the early 1970s for a local public television broadcast, Ebert and Siskel both begged producers to choose "anyone... absolutely anyone" else than the other.

Siskel and Ebert were perfect together. They were Laurel and Hardy or Oscar and Felix. Their disagreements were delicious, as each spent the better part of the half-hour trying to convince the other he was absolutely wrong. And when those thumbs went up or down, fortunes were made or lost.

Life Itself includes some of Siskel and Ebert's "greatest hits"--it also reveals the truth behind why Siskel got top billing.

Two days before his death in April 2013, Ebert wrote, "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

In September 2013, I was back at the Toronto International Film Festival, which opened with a video tribute to Ebert. It was emotional and difficult to endure, but a fitting honor. I'll be back in Toronto in a few weeks for this year's slate of new films. I'll look for that same seat in the theater lobby, think of Roger Ebert, and remember that it's all about the writing.

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