My only complaint about the expansive, emotional documentary “Life Itself,” about legendary film critic Roger Ebert, is that you really can’t complain about it. It’s too straightforward, too admiring of its subject, to generate a really strong reaction. But it was very interesting, and very moving.
Based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same title, and frequently narrated by voice over reading his own book, “Life Itself,” starts in his childhood, an unassuming Midwestern one, in which his doting parents believed in and nurtured his intellect. Ebert began as a kind of newspaper prodigy and by the time he was in college was already an accomplished and erudite writer and editor.
This was the meat of the film for me, especially as it captured a now bygone era of newspapers. Lots of Ebert’s Chicago Sun-Times colleagues dished about the good old days, with Roger Ebert holding court in local watering holes. Between the lines you can infer a little more than what everyone will say about him, but, as one guy puts it, “He was a nice guy, but not that nice.” A big ego clearly derived from his obvious intelligence, but hampered by his portly, nebbish appearance, was on display at nightly, alcohol fueled gabfests.
Amid anecdotes of drunken revelry, we are told that Ebert sought sobriety, and through Alcoholics Anonymous controlled his problem for the rest of his life. This is an example of a time when very little is made of what this struggle might of entailed, and what might have been a darker chapter is glossed over.
Throughout a reconstruction of his past, the filmmaker takes us to Roger Ebert’s final chapter, in which he is dying of cancer. A full participant in the film, Ebert’s condition deteriorates, adding an additional dimension that I feel like also accounts for the worshipful tone. Missing a large portion of his face and talking through a laptop, Ebert continues to tell his own tale, and admiration is really the only proper tone to strike.
His life story takes us to the point most people are familiar with, to his enormously popular TV show with Gene Siskel, in which the two introduced the phrase “Two Thumbs Up” into the vernacular. This film is worth watching if only to see the outtakes in which they curse at each other. That grumbling love-hate chemistry they displayed was not an act.
It’s pretty fascinating to watch them together, and to hear them described by their producers, and by the late Gene Siskel’s wife. They were so competitive that a coin toss had to settle myriad aspects of their show, including the order of their names in the title, and Ebert never tired of mentioning that he won a Pulitzer Prize.
All told, “Life Itself” is a fascinating look at a fascinating man, and his passion for film and for life is worth watching.Unknown filmmakers and Martin Scorsese alike share a respect for what Roger Ebert did for them, and to see Ebert’s life through to its final act is an inescapably emotional journey.
William Wyler directs Bette Davis in two Southern stories: The Southern Literary Trail’s Trailfest 2015 continues with screenings of “Jezebel” and “The Little Foxes”.
Renowned director William Wyler directed Bette Davis in two classic films set in the South: “Jezebel,” based on a play by Owen Davis, and “The Little Foxes” based on a play by Lillian Hellman, one of the authors featured on the Southern Literary Trail. This month, both will be presented in free matinees with introductions by two of Wyler’s daughters.
“Jezebel” will be shown Saturday, March 21, preceded by the hour-long documentary Directed by William Wyler, produced by Catherine Wyler. The program begins at 2 p.m. in Mobile Public Library’s Bernheim Hall, in the Ben May Main Library, 701 Government St. “The Little Foxes” will be screened Sunday, March 22, at 2 p.m. in Bernheim Hall.
A recreation of one of Orry-Kelly’s costumes for Davis as Regina Giddens in “The Little Foxes” were on display at Mobile Arts Council during last week’s ArtWalk, but are scheduled be on display at the Ben May Main Library with related Hellman artifacts through March 22.
These programs are part of The Southern Literary Trail’s Trailfest 2015, presented by Mobile Public Library, Mobile Arts Council, Historic Mobile Preservation Society, Broussard’s Piano Gallery, Davidson High School, and the University of South Alabama Department of Music.