Roger Ebert: “Life Itself” by Mark Borchardt


Roger Ebert lived a full life. That is made resoundingly clear in the new documentary Life Itself based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name. Renowned documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The Interrupters) gifts us with a loving, engaging tribute to Ebert’s robust life and its heartbreaking but inspiring final chapter. Ebert left a rich legacy not only as an informed, impassioned film critic but as an old-school newspaper man and most importantly as a family man. He led a distinguished life, pursued many interests and left the world a better, more informed place. He made us care about movies and showed us the amazingly deep impact they could have on our lives and the way we looked at the world.

James has set forth a vivid portrayal of the life and times of the great man without over-sentimentalizing or laying on the schmaltz. Instead, as usual, he has created a classy production, placing a working man‘s halo over Ebert minus any dubious deification. His life is what it is.

I, like many, was introduced to Roger Ebert through his weekly movie review show with Gene Siskel on PBS. Well, that show exponentially gained in popularity and catapulted both to fame but Ebert more so. Siskel was the critic at the rival paper, the Chicago Tribune. The jovial, if not often times biting, bickering between the two critics drew us in like a curious, intimate fireside chat. Viewers were pulled into the throes of the sporting, if not at times downright contentious, cinematic jousting. Ebert and Siskel were acutely insightful but they kept their reviews within a populist understanding yet without ever dumbing them down. That was the secret and the charm of their success: everyone could tune in and no one would be alienated, all were invited, they kept things at a comprehensive level while not losing an ounce of passion or insight. That’s why the show worked. After all, they were just two guys from Chicago.

Ebert was always a newspaper man and he was already working professionally by his mid-teens. And at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he became editor of “The Daily Illini.” Ultimately, he landed at the Chicago Sun-Times. But not as a film critic. Sports and general reporting were essentially his domain.

Amazingly enough, the job as film critic came to him by default, it landed in his lap when a vacancy opened up in that department. Yet, in 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for it. Not a bad result for an unexpected gig.

But there was a bit of a dark side to his continuing success as alcohol definitely had a grip on Ebert. So he figured he’d better quit while he was still ahead. And in August 1979 he did so. With his talent for writing and the lust for life he persistently pursued, he didn’t need a crutch or an inhibitor like alcohol. He was too large for life for that.

Friends and associates weigh in with valued memories. They respect the man, that is evident, and as for any faults, there is nothing to hide. Venerated WGN Chicago broadcasting host Rick Kogan contributes his take on his beloved acquaintance. For me, personally, it was great to finally see Kogan, the man behind that gravelly voice which delightfully haunted my early Sunday morning radio for years. And Werner Herzog espouses Ebert’s life as well, in of course his own uber-famous tone.

And on our side of the fence, Frankie Latina’s Super-8 epic “Modus Operandi” caught the appreciative eye of Ebert and he put a hearty entry of it in his popular annual film book. Yeah, that’s right, that down-home extravaganza shot out and about in Milwaukee. That’s the kind of guy Ebert was. He gave many a fair shake.

I myself ran into Roger Ebert a number of times throughout the years. The first was in Toronto, at the film festival. I was enamored by the whole scene and who of fame I might spot. Well, of all people, there was Roger Ebert. He didn’t have a clue as to who I was when I enthusiastically called out his name; he looked decidedly perplexed, “Who the hell is that?” he must have silently wondered. Years later he found out and invited me as a guest to his “Overlooked Film Festival” in Champaign, IL where I had the great honor of receiving Ebert’s “Thump’s Up” award with, of all people, Werner Herzog. A heck of a legend to share the stage with.

Later, in the dark of the night, Herzog bummed a cigarette off of Mike Schank and announced he was heading back to the jungle early that morning to continue to work on a film. There’s an anecdote in film history for you. The year was 2004.

Then in 2011 I was invited back to the festival and Roger at that time was in the throes of his illness. His wife, Chazz, was as accommodating as ever and Roger was glad to see us. I had three out of my four kids in tow and it was one of the highlights of my life to share that experience with them. And the film that night at the palatial Virginia Theatre was an epic presentation of “Metropolis” with a stunning musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. That was the last time I saw Roger but obviously that memory will always be with me. And cherished memories of him will be held by so many, many others, for he made an impression upon the numberless.

I happened to see “Life Itself” on opening night at Milwaukee’s renowned Oriental Theatre by the kind invitation of my oldest daughter. Initially, I went to watch a film but ended up, far more importantly, celebrating a life. Thank you, Roger, for all that you gave us. Thumbs up, my man.

-Mark Borchardt