'Life Itself' by Roger Ebert
It is undoubtedly a fair question to begin reading any author’s autobiography with this question: Why should we care?
Why, if the writer has not climbed Everest, landed on the moon, run for and won the presidency of the United States, cured a fatal disease, fed the hungry in Calcutta, been a world champion athlete, or led a national civil rights movement, should we care?
The answer, in the case of film critic Roger Ebert’s new memoir, “Life Itself,’’ is that his life - even the run-of-the-mill parts - makes for compelling reading not unlike one of the best character-driven movies the award-winning journalist has reviewed over a 40-year career.
The book traces Ebert’s life from his childhood in Urbana, Ill., through the beginning of his career at the Chicago Sun-Times, his Pulitzer Prize (the first awarded to a film critic), his partnership with Gene Siskel on their pioneering televised film criticism show, his battle with alcoholism, marriage late in life to attorney Charlie “Chaz’’ Hammel-Smith, and finally his near fatal struggle with thyroid cancer.
Ebert’s public persona is one of a man who is impatient, prickly, and nothing if not confident. Some might say cocky. And sure some parts of the book feel like a name-dropping fest: his friendship with legendary oral historian and radioman Studs Terkel; dinner with young Robert De Niro before he was a star; work with Russ Meyer, the famed maker of tongue-in-cheek sexploitation flicks (“Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’’ and “Supervixens’’); and chapters on his involvement with many of the biggest names in the film industry in the 20th century.
But there are also surprising displays of humility that humanize. Early in the book, Ebert declares that his life has been a figurative movie, in which he as the star shone from time to time largely due to providence. And clearly the man has faced an abundance of life challenges.
One of the things I found most touching was Ebert’s description of his life before the spotlight and his unmatched ability to make his simple childhood adventures seem more interesting than yours or mine.
I found myself wishing like a kid reading “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’’ for the first time that I could have been Ebert’s friend on Washington Street in Urbana, wishing that I could have attended the annual Duncan Yo-Yo competition by his side, wishing that I could have been among the neighborhood children following his version of the pied piper around the block as he read aloud with dramatic flourish from classic literature and delivered his self-published paper, the Washington Street News.
Those put off by Ebert’s somewhat imperious manner and tough critical standards will be disappointed that he fails to explain what appears to be a lapse in his own professional code. Ebert has stood against the growing corps of nonprofessional critics being given public forums to air views that he considers ill-informed. But he does not use “Life Itself’’ to defend himself against accusations that he violated his own rules at least once in his career by selecting Richard Roeper, who was a Sun-Times columnist and not a professional critic, to replace Siskel, who died in 1999.
Still, at each turn that could potentially generate a glare or a smirk, Ebert’s humility again surfaces and soothes. That he could dedicate a chapter to explaining why he owed loyalty to his face, refusing to consider a facial transplant after disfiguring cancer surgery in 2006 that took his lower jaw, smacks of being down to earth and at peace with himself, flaws and all. His face, he reasoned, had served him well his whole life.
In the end, regardless of what you think about Ebert’s attitudes toward life, you cannot deny his joy for, well, “Life Itself.’’