If Sundance gave an award for the most emotionally debilitating film of the festival, then Life Itself, a documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James about the life of Roger Ebert, would win it anew every screening. Two days removed from its devastating premiere, it’s increasingly the talk of every “So, what have you seen that’s good?” conversation. “Not a dry eye in the house is what I’ve heard,” said actor Samm Levine (Freaks and Geeks, Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show) when I mentioned the film at a party last night. “My roommate saw it this morning,” said another partygoer, “and when he came back to the house it was written all over his face. He was like, ‘Uh, yeah, so that was a tear-jerker.’ And he’s a big alpha male dude.”
The audiences at Sundance are probably the most sympathetic ones this film will ever get. Everyone in those seats knew Ebert, admired what he did, or at least shared his passion for movies. But Life Itself, based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, isn’t hagiography. I was completely wrecked by the end, and I never met the man. What’s been fascinating in talking about the film with others who didn’t know him is how everyone latches onto a different aspect of the film: The life story of a man who hit his creative zenith in the midst of painful medical deterioration; the history of cinema as told through a life watching movies; the evolution of his relationship with Gene Siskel from antagonistic to brotherly; the rare and enduring friendships between a chubby Chicago newspaper critic and directors like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog; the great love story between him and the woman who stood by him as he lost his ability to eat, drink, or speak. A colleague asked if it might already be the frontrunner for the 2015 Best Documentary Oscar. Maybe let’s wait till we get done with the current Oscars, but it’s certainly an awards contender here, and it’s the movie that’s moved and inspired me the most.
Before his unexpected death last April after years of battling cancer, Ebert had been a Sundance staple, a familiar champion of film camping out in lines and racing between screenings and writing articles just like every other working journalist. I knew walking into the premiere that the room would be filled with Ebert’s colleagues, friends, and family members, all having very personal experiences. No one seemed to be able to keep it together. And that was before the movie even started.
Festival director John Cooper, who’s been working at Sundance for 25 of its 30 years, made it through about two sentences of his introduction before choking up. “I have a little secret you’re not supposed to know: This was the absolutely, positively easiest film to program ever in my history at Sundance,” he began. “It’s a triple threat. First, it’s about a man we all know and love.” He paused to take a breath and compose himself. “Second, it’s about cinema and history and everything we love here at Sundance. Third, it’s the next film by Steve James.”
James was able to make it a few sentences longer in his speech before his voice cracked. He’d first come to Sundance in 1994 for his debut film, Hoop Dreams, and Ebert and Gene Siskel had reviewed it while it was still at the festival and continued to champion it throughout that year. “And that was the beginning of really Hoop Dreams going out into the world in a way that it never would have without them and without this festival. So to be back here, 20 years later … ” He couldn’t finish his sentence. He left the podium and went straight to Cooper for a hug.
At the start of Life Itself, James explains in voiceover that he began filming Ebert just five months before his death. Ebert had mentioned his hip was sore and the next day was in the hospital. What follows is wrenching footage of him typing jokes into his speaking machine as the cavernous hole of his missing jaw hangs below his cheeks. Later, a nurse comes in to stick a tube in his throat. Ebert’s face turns red and his eyes tear up in immense pain he can’t vocally express. “Great stuff!!!” Ebert emailed James immediately after. “I’m glad we got a great thing nobody ever sees: suction.”
James takes us through Ebert’s childhood and life as a young barfly through interviews with his friends from back in the day. “Roger had probably the worst taste in women ever,” says one, while another recalls how Roger spent months coming into the bar with a “friend” he later admitted was “a hired lady.” They talk about the near-car-crash that drove him to AA. And Chaz, a former trial attorney, talks publicly for the first time about how they met, in AA, when Roger was 300 pounds, but incredibly confident. “And that was so … sexy,” she says. She also, in later, wrenching moments reveals that in the worst part of his illness he’d give her notes that read, “Kill me.”
There’s fantastic footage of Ebert on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show giving a bad review of Three Amigos while sitting on the same couch as Chevy Chase. And caustic outtakes from him and Siskel filming promos in which they criticize each other’s line deliveries; Siskel eventually calls Ebert an asshole and storms off. But as the film progresses, we watch the relationship evolve into one of deep respect and love. It was Siskel’s decision to keep his terminal brain cancer a secret (he died in 1999 at age 53) that made Ebert so determined to be open and honest about his health. Weaved throughout are movie clips and testimonials from filmmakers whose lives Ebert changed with his support, including a very candid Martin Scorsese, who talks about how he was going through a divorce and nearly died of a cocaine overdose when Ebert and Siskel put together a tribute to him at the Toronto Film Festival that “restarted my life.”
A visibly shaken Chaz took to the stage. She had refrained from pre-screening the movie. “It’s a very Roger thing to do — to want to make a discovery of a film at Sundance. I wanted to see it with everybody else.” What was it like for Chaz to watch the film with an audience? “It was emotional,” she told the crowd. “Of course I wish Roger was here tonight.” She talked about how when Roger was dying, he told her she’d have to step out of the shadows and speak out more. That’s what spurred her to start writing about how much she loved him. “I think that I’m so fortunate to have one of the greatest love stories,” she said. “When somebody accepts you unconditionally and loves you that much, you can’t but want to share that love with everyone. And one of the things, people would say, ‘Oh she’s a saint. She took care of him.’ And I did all that, but what they don’t know is how much my heart grew from having” — she choked up — “been with him for those years, for having loved him, for having taken care of him, for having him take care of me.”
She told the story of how two years ago, she had appendicitis and their roles reversed and Roger had to rush her to the hospital in the middle of the night. “Roger was very proud I was in the wheelchair and he was pushing me to show he was my man and he was taking care of me.” James’s response? “Why didn’t you tell me that story in the film?”
Siskel’s very private wife, Marlene, was there, too, and she gave some pretty hilarious comments on her husband’s behalf, calling Gene the more elegant of the two and saying of Roger, “Gene would say, ‘He’s an asshole, but he’s my asshole.’” She had to participate, she said, “because I know that Gene would have wanted to be part of this film for Roger. I think his review would have been incredibly positive. He would have thought it’s a very comprehensive and beautiful portrait of an amazing man.” She paused. “Of course, he would have liked a little bit more of himself in there.”
“I want to say thank you, Marlene, for being open and honest and participating in the film,” said Chaz, “but as an Ebert to a Siskel, Gene was not more elegant than Roger.”
“It’s your night, Chaz,” said Marlene, laughing.
Marlene then asked James what he thought was the image that summed up the movie for him. James recalled a moment when Roger was getting his suction done while blasting Steely Dan, something he would do multiple times a day. “That was just a regular part of his life, he’s got the music going, he’s rocking out to the music, she does the suction, and he gives it a thumbs up,” said James.
Chaz left us with a final thought. “For him, movies were not just about movies, they were really about the empathy machine of standing in someone else’s shoes, allowing you to be a person of another race, of another gender, living in a different country. He said that when you went into the movies and if it was a good movie or something really important, that it really did help transform you as a human being. He said that when you went into a movie, in those two hours, if the movie was really working its job on you properly, that you left being a truer version of who you were.” For many who’ve seen it, it seems, Life Itself passes that test.