Confessions of a Critic: Roger Ebert’s ‘Life Itself’

Roger Ebert Pulitzer

Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975; 36 years later, he makes himself the subject of “Life Itself”

“You see a lot, Doctor. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself? … why don’t you look at yourself and write down what you see? Or maybe you’re afraid to.” – Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs

“Critic” is generally viewed as a negative word. Look it up in any dictionary, and you’ll find that it primarily means a person expressing unfavorable opinions. But once I realized my love of movies, and discovered Roger Ebert, that definition melted away.

Growing up in the Philippines, I always dreamed of meeting Roger. He was the first to give a voice to my sentiments about my favorite films and gave me pause whenever he could not recommend those that I had liked. I read every piece of his I could find and listened to every assessment (or argument) he and his famed partner Gene Siskel made every week. He inspired me and I suspect a great many others to write about the movies, sparking a new generation of film critics both online and off. Ask us about any picture, and we can tell you if he liked it or not.

There are of course other notable film critics, many of whom I greatly admire for their erudition in deconstructing the art form. But I value Roger’s critique above all else because of the many things that make it unique. There’s the lyricism drawn from a deep knowledge and love of prose and poetry. The thoughtfulness. The non-condescending wit.

But most of all, there is his gregarious openness and honesty, as he goes out of his way to share many things about himself to make his point. I remember when he revealed how his parents died from lung cancer in his review of The Insider; his internal debate on why he disliked Iris so intensely; and his classic Great Movies piece on E.T., written as a love letter to his grandchildren. Has any cineaste since Pauline Kael been so good at making the movies so personal? It reflects how he adheres to Robert Warshow’s credo. “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.”

It is no different with Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, where he points his high-powered perception at himself. It first unfolds as a rich recollection of beloved people and places. Roger’s powers of evocation have never been more fully utilized as he describes his childhood, adolescence, and entry into adulthood. I can still remember his basement smelling of green onions, diners with convertibles waiting to be served with trays, and hot printing press rooms with sweat dripping onto the headlines.

Those he holds dear are given their time and due. There are so many of them that you might not remember them all. But he makes sure that those he loves most won’t be forgotten. Such as his father, Walter, whom he called “Daddy” ’til his last day; His mother, Annabel, who embodied two important phases in his life; his editor Bob Zonka who first assigned him as a film critic and became his second father figure. There are professors and nuns whom he admired and challenged; dearest friends like John McHugh and Bill Nack whom he cherishes; Schools and institutions to which he takes us on a proud and nostalgic trip.

He then takes time to acknowledge the film greats who surely must have made the greatest impressions on him: Directors such as Russ Meyer, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, and Werner Herzog, Actors such as Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne. These of course are the familiar names Roger has often mentioned through the years. What is amazing are the tales of those first time meetings; of conversations and stories you may have never heard of.

Like the one where Roger explains how Shari Eubank should return in Russ Meyer’s SuperVixens:

“Resurrection,” I explained. “When they last saw her, she was dead in the bathtub. Now it’s dawn.” I pointed out to the top of a small nearby peak. “The bathtub is on the mountaintop. The sun is rising. We play Thus Spake Zarathustra. Now she’s SuperAngel. We see her rising out of the bathtub wearing a see-through diaphanous gown. She is alive.”

Russ liked it. “All we have to do is get the bathtub up there,” he said.

Or Roger’s interview with Robert Mitchum with him driving near Pittsburgh on the way to the set of Going Home . Mitchum’s friend, Tim Lawless, was by his side:

“Here’s Route Eight now,” Tim said.
“That’s Exit Eight, not Route Eight,” Mitchum said.

“We’re going to be real late,” Tim said.

“They can rehearse,” Mitchum said. “They can practice falling off stairs, tripping over lights, and shouting at each other in the middle of a take.”

The car was back in the tunnel again now. Tim came down through a series of cloverleafs and found himself back on Route 79, headed for the airport.

“I’m lost,” he said. “Baby, I am lost.”

In desperation, he made a U-turn across six lanes of traffic and found himself on an up ramp going in the wrong direction with a cop walking slowly across the street toward him.

Then there are Scorsese’s intense wounds from his split with his ex-wife, Isabella Rossellini. Here’s there conversation in 1983 about James Toback’s Exposed, starring Nastassja Kinski:

“I can’t bear to see Kinski in anything,” Scorsese said. “She reminds me too much of Isabella. It tears me apart. I can’t even go to see a film by the Tiavani brothers, because Isabella and I had a little courtship on the set of their films. I can’t ever go back to the island of Salina, where Visconti’s The Leopard was shot, because we were there. In fact, I can hardly even watch a film by Visconti without growing depressed.”

And Woody Allen’s comments on fame, as told to Roger:

“Yes people said to me, ‘Are you worried about having this having an impact in your career?’ But from where I sat, it couldn’t have an impact. Am I going to be less popular? I wasn’t popular when people thought I was popular. I never had a big audience to begin with. And it never mattered to me. If people said to me tomorrow that I couldn’t make a movie again because no one would come, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest.”

Ebert with longtime TV partner Gene Siskel on the set of ‘At the Movies’

He then of course delves into what he know of his persona: His partnership with Siskel, their influence and their special bond nurtured through several groundbreaking TV shows with the trademark Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down. There’s the city of Chicago with its good eats (Billy Goat Tavern) and good drinks (O’Rourke’s); South Africa, Venice, and Cannes. He builds on stories that he has partly shared with avid readers of his blog: There’s Chaz, the love of his life; his alcoholism which nearly ended it, and his bouts with cancer.

These memories are vivid and in hindsight, what I expected. What I did not expect was how far Roger was willing to go, as if he realized the life story he was telling was following a revealing yet predictable path. In the last ten chapters or so, he goes completely out of his comfort zone, bravely reckoning with events and issues with truths just realized upon reflection.

Though he dedicates an entire chapter to his mother Annabel early in the book, he does not spare us later on from the negative influences she had on his life, such as the effect of his perceived inadequacy:

“FROM THE EARLIEST days of my adolescence, my love life was conducted in secrecy. My behavior centered on a paralyzing reluctance to engage my mother’s anger. Her conviction that I was destined for the Church led to hostility toward any expression of my sexuality. Late one night after an orgasmic session in the front seat of my car in front of one of the university residence halls, I hung my blue jeans in back of my closet, planning to wash them later. With an uncanny sixth sense, she found them there the next morning and waved the proof of my sin before me, accusing me of having “wasted a baby.” I felt humiliated. I began to keep as much of my life as possible a secret from her. If my father had been alive it would have been different, I believe, but he was not alive.”

This impact snowballs looms over his later relationships, damaging his first few chances at having a life partner and a family. Roger recalls a conversation with his Aunt Martha over his love for Sarah Nance, a divorced nurse, and her three children Rita, Gregory and Britt from her previous marriage. He compares his relationship with her to his first serious girlfriend, Tal Gilat.

“What I should have done, she thought, was marry Sarah. That might have led to disaster. I had the decade of my worst drinking ahead of me. Sarah also drank too much, which is why, unlike Tal, she tolerated my own boozing. It’s likely that the result for the kids would have been the misery of an alcoholic household. Once years later when Rita Marie and Britt were visiting Chicago for a family reunion, we had a long talk. I saw that while Rita had a clear view of the reality of those days, Britt felt abandoned by me. In his mind, I had left. He never knew his birth father, but I was the father who had walked out, and that still hurt.”

Indeed, his desire to be father comes through the strongest. Roger has never had any children of his own, but there were times where he thought where he might have had one:

“If the child had been born, I would have claimed it as my own and wanted to raise it, while marrying the mother. That would have been absolute. I related this story of “my only child” to Chaz, and told her, ‘If the telephone were to ring today and the person on the other end were to say You are my biological father, I would weep with joy.'”

There is also a kind of tragic reckoning with his mother’s fate at the hands of alcoholism, which she suffered from during her second marriage after Roger’s father had passed away. Such knowledge is doubly heartbreaking, knowing his own demons with the disease:

My mother was a good woman, and I loved her. I had a happy childhood and was loved and encouraged. Alcoholism changed her, and I should know as well as anyone how that happens. The Annabel people loved was lovable. … That was the mother I had. Alcoholism is a terrible disease and I am glad I had it because I can understand what happened to her, and how it damaged my own emotional growth. I buried myself in movies that allowed me to live vicariously.

Late into the book he digs into his health. What is striking is the sense of how much he seems to blame himself:

“The Internet is said to be responsible for helping patients take control of their own diseases. Few movies are ever made about sick people courageously taking doctors’ advice. No, they get bright ideas online. I believe my infatuation with neutron radiation led directly to the failure of all three of my facial surgeries, the loss of my jaw, loss of the ability to eat, drink, and speak, and the surgical damage to my right shoulder and back as my poor body was plundered for still more reconstructive transplants. Today I look like an exhibit in the Texas Chainsaw Museum.”

And in his last few paragraphs, though he has no illusions about a light at the end of the tunnel, he remains equanimous:

“I KNOW IT is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approaching path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”

These may not be the thoughts his ardent fans want to hear. They are painful and soul-baringly honest. But that’s what shines through in this book. Above all, Roger treasures honesty as a means to understanding. He values it in his vocation, in his loved ones and all the other pillars of his life. As someone who has looked up to him as a hero and a friend, his memoir is an intimate and forthright privilege. Roger Ebert is honest enough to admit he is that man.

The critic Matt Zoller Seitz once said that, “People don’t read film criticism. People read critics.” Life Itself confirms it.

“I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our faith, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” – R.E.

Michael Mirasol is a film critic from the Phillipines and one of Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents.

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