He could be generous and petty, competitive and nurturing, absurdly public and ferociously private.
And given access to a soap box, Roger Ebert would scramble on top of it. Aside from being America’s most famous film critic, Ebert was a film enthusiast who championed films in print and on TV, cajoling-begging-demanding that America sit up and pay attention to a movie he loved.
Documentarian Steve James owes his career to the attentions of Ebert and his TV foil, Gene Siskel.
“Their impact on Hoop Dreams was remarkable,” James remembers. “This was a three-hour documentary about basketball and two kids and their families from Chicago, people nobody had ever heard of, and when we got the film into Sundance, we submitted it to distributors. Didn’t hear a peep … But when Roger and Gene reviewed it on the show, during the Sundance Film Festival, they said ‘We really think it deserves wider distribution’ during the review, suddenly, the Sundance showings were sold out and we got distribution.”
That long-ago endorsement made James famous — and made him the natural choice to make a documentary about Ebert, based on his memoir Life Itself. The film opens Friday in South Florida.
After Siskel died and as Ebert faced his own mortality — losing his voice and much of his face to cancer, before finally succumbing in 2013 — James and Ebert discussed documenting the life Ebert described in his 2011 memoir.
“I told him I wanted input, but that I would have final say,” James recalled. “Roger and [his widow] Chaz understood that. But as that one email that he sent me that’s in the movie is the most important. He said, ‘This is not just your film, it’s mine.’ I love that. I want every subject to feel that way about a documentary I make with them.”
James captured the last months of Ebert’s life and had access to decades of Ebert TV appearances and his newspaper cronies and college pals. He filmed the movie’s anchoring event, the Chicago Theatre memorial service that drew moviegoers and movie makers, singing Ebert’s praises.
“I’m puzzled by how beloved he seemed to be,” Chaz Ebert says, noting how “beloved” and “critic” rarely turn up in the same sentence. “I think he was extremely likable, down-to-earth, charismatic and very funny. But he also could connect with people. He was real. That’s how he did it.
“He only had a competitive edge when he was around Gene Siskel. With others, he seemed very generous — moviegoers, other critics, actors. He didn’t seem to feel threatened by them, and that disarmed people. That’s the kind of guy he was. What you saw with him was what you got.”
That line filmmaker Oliver Stone used about Ebert stands out — he was “Midwestern fair” in his assessments.
As Life Itself notes, Ebert became a critic at what James calls “a golden moment,” 1967, as Bonnie and Clyde and 2001 were launching American “cinephile culture.” Ebert championed films, first for the Chicago Sun-Times, and then on assorted TV shows paired with Siskel, and James says “helped shape the cinema” over three of the most important decades in Hollywood history. An early adapter to the Internet — he saw the potential in Google so early and put money into it, that he was invited into its IPO (initial public offering) when the company went public and offered stock — Ebert talked movies, politics and eventually, his illness, on his wildly popular blog.
“I want people to know that he grabbed life with both hands, with gusto and joy, right up to the end,” Chaz Ebert says. “That’s a model for anybody who had good fortune in life, as he certainly did, and then illness, surgeries. He was someone who never lost that gusto.”