The Lasting Legacy of Roger Ebert

Crowdfunded documentary captures legendary film critic's final days and enduring influence

Jan 22, 2014 at 1:06 pm

I am Life Itself community member #888. There are at least 1,656 others. All of us, although we may never know each other by name, are bound together by one of the most influential people film history has ever known: film critic Roger Ebert.

As community members, we contributed donations of all amounts to the Indiegogo fundraising campaign for the documentary about Ebert’s life, Life Itself. Anyone who contributed $25 or more, as I did, was able to stream the live premiere from the Sundance Film Festival, an idea Ebert surely would have loved.

Based on his 2011 memoir of the same name, Life Itself presents the story of Ebert, the man. The memoir and the documentary both reveal that Ebert was much more than the film critic icon he is most recognized as. He was a young enthusiast, a bookworm, a newspaperman, a playboy, a romantic, an alcoholic, an avid traveler, a creature of habit, a father and a fiercely devoted friend.

Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) began filming in December 2012, just four months before Ebert would die after a long war with cancer. The plan was to film him living life as usual despite his illness, which made it difficult for him to get around and impossible to speak. Days before filming, Ebert was admitted to the hospital due to a fractured hip.

Dedicated to telling his story honestly, “warts and all,” Ebert and his wife, Chaz, allowed James to continue filming. We see Ebert when he is upright in a hospital bed, his lower jaw entirely removed, typing away on his laptop. We see him with friends and family, often cracking jokes and smiling. We see him during the rougher patches, too, like when the nurse suctions his throat, a painful process that Ebert endured multiple times a day.

Between the inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking moments during those last four months, Ebert’s story is told through intimate interviews with friends and colleagues. Remembered as a staunch advocate for any film that he felt passionately about, Life Itself brings together some of filmmaking’s best.

Martin Scorsese, who also executive produced the documentary, reflects on a dark time in his life. In an emotional interview, Scorsese says that Ebert, a supporter of his since his first film Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, and Ebert’s partner in crime, Gene Siskel, brought him back to life when they invited him to a special tribute honoring the director. Other filmmakers with close connections to Ebert who are interviewed include Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani and Errol Morris.

Narrated passages taken directly from the memoir give the film a chronological framework that provides structure to Ebert’s full and varied life. Voiced by actor Stephen Stanton, the narration is a gift to Ebert’s admirers. It takes very little suspension to believe that it is Ebert talking to us, his voice so recognizable that even when he spoke through a computerized voice named Alex, we could hear Roger, our friend.

Ebert’s most beloved, as the world by now knows, was Chaz. He credits her for saving him from a life of being alone and for giving him the will to live when illness had taken it away. The most tender moments of Life Itself are when Chaz and Ebert occupy the same frame, two warrior lovers, inseparable until the end. The most heartbreaking are when Chaz is alone, quietly devastated by her husband’s illness.

Of course, Ebert’s other well-known relationship is documented here. If there was any doubt as to whether the relationship between Ebert and Siskel was contentious, Life Itself shows us that it was. But what it also reveals is the complex and loving brotherhood between the two men.

One of the most intimate moments, and one that brought me tears, was Chaz’s telling of Ebert’s passing. “You must let me go,” Ebert told her. Unbeknownst to her, he had signed a do-not-resuscitate order, taking the decision out of her hands. Chaz describes what followed as a “wind of peace.”

Just before he died, his hands too swollen and his energy too low, Ebert wrote to James in response to a series of emailed questions saying, “i can’t.” What Roger knew is that we can.

In dollars, the Life Itself Indiegogo community raised a total of $153,875, well exceeding the goal. In the end, a much larger community comprised of millions of Ebert’s fans and kindred spirits, raised a film. ©