There is a tendency to think of film critics as people who spend most of their lives in the dark, vicariously living their lives through the movies.
The late Roger Ebert was one of them—turning out six to eight reviews every week for the Chicago Sun-Times when he wasn’t sitting opposite Gene Siskel, sparring over a latest release on a national television show. He famously saw film as a machine that generates empathy, allowing him to better understand the hopes, dreams, aspirations and fears of others.
Over the course of his 70-year life, he watched close to 10,000 films—and reviewed more than half of them—spending countless hours in movie theaters. That did not stop him from living an extraordinary existence himself, until the very end.
In his newest documentary, “Life Itself”—which will screen on Saturday night at Guild Hall in East Hampton, kicking off the Hampton International Film Festival’s SummerDocs series, hosted by Alec Baldwin—director Steve James paints a 115-minute biography that chronicles Mr. Ebert’s childhood, rise to stardom, and failing health with grace, honesty and respect—and no holds barred.
“When Roger decided to commit to it, he meant to this film being a very candid portrait of who he is in life. He wanted that,” Mr. James said last week during a telephone interview from his hotel room in Britain, preparing for the film’s UK premiere. “It spoke to his character as a person and his understanding of what he loved about movies.”
Roger Ebert was born on June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Illinois, the only child of a bookkeeper and an electrician. He was in the news business by age 15, always carrying a penchant for film while reporting for the Daily Illini and, later, the Chicago Sun-Times. When movie critic Eleanor Keane left in April 1967, the job was Mr. Ebert’s.
That marked the start of his coveted career—but not before he co-wrote the 1970 Russ Meyer film “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”—a violent, exploitative cult classic regarded as a cross between a satire, serious melodrama, rock musical, comedy, skin flick and moralistic exposé, Mr. James explains in the film, with the help of director Martin Scorsese.
“‘Beyond the Valley’ is …” he trailed off, shooting his hand away from his body, “beyond it. This is a title, because you’re going to go beyond it. It went over my head. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. I did like [Ashley St. Ives] having sex in the Bentley. Because the way he cut to the grill. Um, but I did like that editing in the Bentley.”
In 1975, Mr. Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism—the same year he began co-hosting a weekly television show, “Sneak Previews,” which was locally broadcast, until Mr. Siskel came aboard three years later, when it was picked up for national broadcasting by PBS.
Mr. Siskel, the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, worked across the street from the Sun-Times—in a towering, Gothic structure, appealing to the wealthier upper class—while Mr. Ebert slaved to get by. He could have written for anyone after winning the Pulitzer, but the journalist was stubborn and stayed put.
The pair were professional enemies. They hardly spoke. And when they were asked to work together on a television show—eventually named “Siskel & Ebert & The Movies,” and, later, “At the Movies”—they both said they would rather do it with anyone else.
They didn’t have a choice. Sitting in director’s chairs, looking into the camera very seriously, Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert stiffly talked about the movies. But there was something there—an undeniable knowledge of film, and an undercurrent of hysterical tension that oftentimes erupted on and off the air.
“Sound a little more excited, Gene,” Mr. Ebert snapped at Mr. Siskel in a series of outtakes from filming a promo, included in Mr. James’s documentary.
“Sound less excited, Roger,” Mr. Siskel snarked. “That’s why we’re redoing it, because of what you did.”
During their last take, on the outtro, Mr. Siskel says, “That’s this week on ‘Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.’ And the asshole. And that’s Roger.”
They often crushed each other with differing opinions, always trying to one-up each other. Mr. Ebert resented his name coming second and once told a reporter, “I’m older. I’ve been a movie critic longer. ‘E’ comes before ‘S’ in the alphabet. I’ve got the Pulitzer Prize. Yet it’s called ‘Siskel and Ebert.’ And if you want to know why that is, you can ask Siskel.”
“Flip of the coin,” Siskel had responded, nonchalantly.
Despite their differences, the men grew to truly love one another—coining “Two Thumbs Up” when they agreed on a review. When Mr. Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999, Mr. Ebert was deeply shaken. He hadn’t even known his partner was sick, he explained in his memoir, “Life Itself,” published in 2011.
Mr. James read it for the first time in the spring of 2012 and was instantly captivated by his story—from his barhopping days in Chicago and journalistic adventures to fighting alcoholism and meeting his wife, Chaz. They began filming in December, Mr. James ready to show the active side of the critic’s life.
But, days later, Mr. Ebert was in the hospital with a fractured hip. It would be the beginning of a long road from here, and his wife stayed by his side every step of the way.
“I knew Roger had a very special marriage to Chaz, but to witness it up close and to understand its history as fully as I did, it wasn’t a surprise in that I didn’t know they were so perfect for each other,” Mr. James said. “It was a revelation to just know how special that relationship was.”
Lying in a hospital bed, Mr. Ebert kept his humor about him, answering Mr. James’s questions via email and with the help of a computerized voice system to communicate, as his lower jaw had been removed in 2002 due to cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands.
But, early last April, his responses began to slow. The cancer was back.
“Roger, any progress on my last question? Or are these just not doing anything for you?” Mr. James wrote.
“I’m having a very bad day,” Mr. Ebert said.
“I know your energy is limited … could you help me prioritize my questions? 1. On defining criticism. 2. The future of film and film culture. 3. The debate with Corliss in Film Comment. 4. The state of things today—how determined are you to keep working, keep going?” Mr. James pushed.
“Isn’t it in the book somewhere? … I’m fading … hands swollen and I cannot type,” Mr. Ebert said.
“Why did you call your book ‘Life Itself?’” Mr. James asked.
“i can’t,” he wrote back. “Cheers, R.”
Fearing the worst, Mr. James called Ms. Ebert, who crumpled into tears. Her husband was giving up.
“He said, ‘You know, I don’t want to fight this time. I don’t want to fight cancer. I am ready to go,’” Ms. Ebert said in the film. “‘I have had a beautiful life, and death is a part of life. And I’m ready to go, and you must let me go. You must let me go.’”
Standing in the hospital room, a “wind of peace” came over Ms. Ebert—as her husband once called it. She put on Mr. Ebert’s favorite jazz music, by Dave Brubeck, and held his left hand. Someone took her other hand and, before she knew it, a circle had formed around the bed.
“I have never seen anything so beautiful and so serene,” Ms. Ebert said in the film. “It was so peaceful in that room. And everything just relaxed. He looked so young. He looked happy. The most warm hands.”
Mr. Ebert slipped away forever. And the doctor called the time of death: 1:40 p.m.
“It was really unexpected when we started filming that, four months later, he would be gone,” Mr. James said. “It was unexpected to everyone, including Chaz. It ends up being a film about how one dies with grace and courage—and even a sense of humor.
“This is not a depressing film. It’s a film that is full of Roger and all he was. So, therefore, it’s full of life.”
“Life Itself” will kick off the Hamptons International Film Festival’s SummerDocs series on Saturday, June 21, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Alec Baldwin will host a Q&A session with Chaz Ebert following the screening. Tickets are $23, or $21 for members. For more information, call (631) 324-0806, or visit guildhall.org.