Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz were so linked, in my mind,
that it’s impossible for me to think of one without the other. Once people see
Steve James’ moving documentary Life
Itself, which opens theatrically on Friday, they will surely understand
why. Following a screening at USC this past Friday, I moderated a q&a
session with Chaz and asked her what surprised her most about people’s reaction
to the film thus far. Her answer: that audiences are so moved by their love
During Roger’s lifetime, he and Chaz tried to keep their
family life private. Anyone who encountered the couple at film festivals could
see how they cared for each other—all the more so after Roger became ill. But in
this surprisingly wide-ranging documentary, people will see how devoted Roger
was, not only to Chaz but to the family he inherited when he married her. Home
movies of their travels, and his interaction with his devoted children and
grandchildren, reveal a side of Ebert that outsiders didn’t see.
I never got to know Roger well, largely because he was based
in Chicago and I was in Los Angeles. We enjoyed chatting when we’d run into
each other at industry events and the annual Telluride Film Festival. But my
wife Alice and I noticed a palpable change in him when he married Chaz, the
brilliant and compassionate woman who became his soul mate. She was more than a
partner: she was his Rock of Gibraltar.
Members of the audience at USC asked about their
relationship and Chaz replied that, despite surface appearances, they were more
alike than unalike. The only time she recalled a differing point of view based
on race came when the O.J. Simpson verdict was delivered in 1994. Roger didn’t
understand why black people cheered at the news, and Chaz explained that it was
a reaction to years of injustice, not merely one high-profile case. He said he
hadn’t considered that.
When I first
screened the film at the Sundance Film Festival in January, I had a highly
emotional reaction, as my wife did the other night. Anyone who has gone through
a difficult illness, or cared for someone who was dying, will certainly relate.
What makes Life Itself so impressive
is the way Roger and Chaz opened themselves up to filmmaker Steve James during
Roger’s penultimate hospital stay in Chicago and its aftermath.
I told Chaz
that I found it both brave and risky for her and Roger to expose themselves as
they did, but she made light of that. They knew that James (who made his name
with Hoop Dreams twenty years ago)
believes all of his documentaries to be collaborative projects, and would never
include anything that his subjects found objectionable.
Yet this is
no puff piece: the film paints a fascinating and rounded portrait of Ebert
(and, of course, his longtime partner Gene Siskel), warts and all. I’ll tell
you more when I post my official review of the film later this week. For now,
suffice it to say that Life Itself is
more than the biography of a film critic: it is a story of talent,
perseverance, luck, serendipity, sadness, and—yes—love.