on September 13, 2011
This memoir opens as though someone had created a set, arranged the lights, positioned actors, and yelled "Action!" Ebert is three years old, sensing the motions of parents, aunts, uncles and extended family, reacting to various stimuli, seemingly aware, even at this age, the cameras are rolling.
The book has a lot in common with the Gunther Grass novel The Tin Drum, as Ebert recalls his early years, then in vivid detail, matinee afternoons with his parents watching the Marx Brothers hit, A Day At The Races, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and one of the first 3D films, Bwana Devil. Early screen heroes were Whip Wilson and Lash LaRue, characters who carried guns but didn't need them because they also carried whips and could slash a pistol from your grip before you could aim it. He remembers the ubiquitous aroma of popcorn, the high movie house ceilings, and girls with rolls of Necco wafers.
Then came college, 1963, the year Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski led the University of Illinois to the Rose Bowl. "I became friendly with a voluptuous woman under a grey woolen blanket. In the middle of the night, rocking through the midlands, we made free with each other." He had fun, but also vigorous preparation, working for the Daily Illini newspaper with its Associated Press affiliation, spending hours setting hot lead Linotype, and reading the voluminous novels of Thomas Wolfe.
One of Ebert's transcendent skills has always been the interview, and the book is full of them - John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Woody Allen and the enigmatic Igmar Bergman are represented, but the best one takes place with Robert Mitchum. You can hear Mitchum speaking the interview lines, and for a brief time, you are in one of his movies. "I knew him," Mitchum says of Humphrey Bogart. "He and I were good friends. He once said to me: `the thing that makes you and I different from those other guys is, we're funny.'"
Over a lifetime of watching movies, Ebert has reached some conclusions about them. "Movies aren't about what happens to the characters. They're about the example [the characters] set. Casablanca is about people who do the right thing. The Third Man is about people who do the right thing and can't speak to each other as a result. You may need awhile to think about this, but the deep secret of The Silence Of The Lambs is that Hannibal Lecter is a Good Person."
He has mixed feelings about the contemporary movie scene as this passage on page 160 reveals: "When you go to the movies every day, sometimes it seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven, more cowardly, more determined to pander to our lowest tastes instead of educating them." He adores black and white films, and offers movie goers this test: "take a picture of your grandparents, probably taken in black and white, and put it next to a picture of your parents probably taken in color. The picture of your grandparents will probably seem timeless, the one of your parents will probably seem goofy."
He ends the book as a man larger than the motion picture industry he critiqued, emerging as someone very much at home with his contribution to film and even more so, to his family. Easily the best book I've read this year.
Cut. Print it.
on November 23, 2011
We tell stories for different reasons. If you're about to read Ebert's LIFE ITSELF, it might be helpful to consider why he writes these memoirs as he does.
He's not really telling his stories to inform us or to broaden our knowledge about large and small eating places that he has loved around the world, or the great pals he has accumulated in a very full life. He's not primarily interested in entertaining us or holding our attention, though I think he expects that will happen--and it probably will.
I believe Ebert is telling these stories the way people do in the later years of our lives--as a precious kind of taking stock for ourselves, a summing up (the title of Somerset Maugham's memoirs), a saying of the rosary of our days. Every bead is cherished. The litany of names of pals and what they drank and where they sat and who they out-smarted and how much they loved us and we them--this review and re-telling is as much a part of the so-called third stage of life as learning to talk is of the first stage.
If you know this in advance, then you can sit back and let Roger tell you all the details, and smile and nod in appreciation of the man telling the stories. I skipped a number of chapters--each too long for too little of what I was interested in. Other chapters I read slowly, gleaning every grain I could.
I don't think I could have NOT read this book. Roger Ebert's is the major voice on a subject I've been passionate about for more than seventy years. I advise potential readers of the book to sit back, enjoy, be patient, skip when you feel like it, and realize how lucky we are to have the book and the man.
I loved this book for a lot of reasons, but bought it for one reason. I LOVE MOVIES! I've spent decades going to the movies and loving even some really bad ones. I was certain Roger Ebert would have plenty to say regarding film, its directors, its writers and its stars.
In this book, Ebert delivers. It is loaded with anecdotes about the people he's come in contact with as a film critic, but it also has a huge amount of heart and is surprisingly revealing in regard to the private person who is also known as Roger Ebert. If Ebert is unsparing in his film criticisms, he is also unsparing when he covers his own life. From growing up in Urbana, IL and attending the home town University of Illinois, he covers his short career covering sports, a fortuitous shot at the Chicago Sun-Times film critic job which established his reputation as a sharp reviewer, a brush with alcoholism, a sometimes adversarial relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, a later in life marriage with his soulmate Chaz, and a decimating encounter with cancer which even after several surgeries has robbed him of his ability to speak and eat. For someone who was not only a fluid writer/speaker this was one heck of a challenge.
While getting personal, I found he really seemed to leave nothing out. Be it his complex relationships with women (he had three very serious ones with divorced ladies who coincidentally had children) or his even more complex relationship with his widowed mother Annabel, he apparently left nothing out. From my pov, anyone who writes about themselves are wise to be as honest as possible.
Ebert speaks in detail of the small and big things that have influenced his life and career, meaningful and/or memorable
encounters with the famous, and he remembers with clarity small sensory things that most us take for granted. He is incredibly positive and optimistic given all he has gone through over the past few years. I don't like using the word 'inspirational', but his take on life certainly has made a positive impression on me.
One really mundane thing discussed is his love of Steak and Shake. While the burger emporium has expanded over the country in the past few years, this was a phenomena that was once only available in central Illinois. Ebert loves the place. All the S&S talk made me really hungry.
I've had my share of Ebert spottings through the years as we both live in the same area. He's the local celebrity and he is very recognizable. I've gone to lectures he's given on film. I've read his other books. However, this is the book that will stand out among the others because it is comprehensive, very personal, and enormously interesting because of its wide range of topics and candor. If you have a preconceived notion of who Roger Ebert is, reading this book may very well change your mind.
I was able to read parts of the print version of this wonderful new book by Roger Ebert but then the AUDIO version arrived and I switched to that. (I'm a big audio fan.) If you know of Ebert's recent health problems - which are covered in the book near the end, but are mentioned periodically throughout - you know that he has lost the ability to speak (as well as eat). So, obviously, he was not going to be reading his own words for the audio version. Hachette Audio made a great choice in choosing actor Edward Hermann. I've been a big fan of Hermann's readings over the last 25 years. (Yes, some of my favorite "books on tape" (remember tape?) were his readings. And he's perfect for Ebert's calm descriptions of growing up in Urbana, Illinois, going to college, getting his job with the Chicago Sun-Times and a lifelong career in film criticism and reviewing. His wife Chaz is never far away from his thoughts either.
As for the contents of the book, I'll defer to previous reviewer Robert Taylor Brewer, who pretty much covers the books contents - without giving away the details of some great stories. My favorite was the chapter on Russ Meyer - for whom Ebert wrote the script for the sexploitation film "Beyond The Valley of the Dolls". I always wanted to know how he and Meyer met and that chapter filled me in. To have someone move from Meyer to Bergman to John Wayne tells you the breadth of Ebert's circle.
So, if you don't have the time to sit and read this 448-page volume, you will certainly enjoy the 14 hour audio book. The print edition gives you the extra benefit of having an Index - so you can go back to favorite places or jump ahead to topics or personalities that most interest you. Either way this book gets five stars from me.
on September 30, 2011
Roger Ebert has spent a lifetime as a critic, immersed in the world of cinema as he thoughtfully appraises the work of actors, directors and screenwriters. Now, approaching the end of his seventh decade, he has focused his critical lens on his own life in this insightful, compassionate, witty and moving self-portrait.
LIFE ITSELF grew out of the blog Ebert began writing in 2008, and portions, such as the glimpse of his reading life, "Books Do Furnish a Room," will look familiar to its regular readers. Though it presents a comprehensive and, in some instances, roughly chronological account of his life, including the pleasures his work and attendant fame have brought him and the harrowing ordeal of his recent illnesses, each of the chapters works as a freestanding piece. Ebert's memory for detail is prodigious and his ability to evoke people and places compelling.
Born in 1942, Ebert "grew up in security and comfort" in Urbana, Illinois, his father an electrician for the University of Illinois and his mother employed by a finance company. Realizing only years later that "my parents never really had much money," he recounts with obvious pleasure what amounted to something close to an idyllic post-war Middle American boyhood. There are no revelations of sexual abuse or other dark subjects, but he acknowledges his parents' problems with alcohol, an affliction he overcame in 1979 with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. From the day he landed his first newspaper job at age 16, it seemed his career as a journalist was preordained, not least in the way he effortlessly slipped into the job of film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967.
Though the book eventually returns to more personal subjects (including his passion for travel, his seriocomic romantic life and his lust for a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk), about midway through Ebert shifts his attention to the world of film. There's an affectionate chapter on his friendship with softcore porn king Russ Meyer, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Movie buffs will appreciate his portraits of actors like Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and John Wayne, although younger readers may wish for some more contemporary portraits.
Ebert himself is quick to mourn how his loss of speech has curtailed his "freedom to interview" and the lengthening list of "new stars and directors coming up now whom I will never get to know that way." To his appraisals of directors Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and his directorial and personal idol, Werner Herzog, he brings the well-honed eye of the critic and the enthusiasm of a fan.
With the exception of a brief jab at critic John Simon, for whom he feels "repugnance," Ebert's memoir is free of rancor, remarkably so for a public figure who, like any other, has had to endure his share of criticism. If anything, the book is suffused with a sense of gratitude and tinged with regret that perhaps he wasn't able to repay fully the generosity of his mentors, Chicago legends Studs Terkel ("the greatest man I knew well") and Mike Royko among them.
In that spirit, Ebert devotes a chapter that's both tender and candid to his relationship with the late Gene Siskel, one that brought enduring celebrity to both and whose end when Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999 he still mourns. The intense rivalry that flashed in their often heated debates about movies was real, he confirms, but in the end he wistfully acknowledges that "no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love." And on the subject of love, the portrait of his wife Chaz is one any spouse would cherish.
Despite the mushrooming medical calamity that has dominated his life beginning in 2006 (an operation for thyroid cancer followed by three failed reconstructive surgeries left him with a severe facial deformity, unable to speak or eat), Ebert understands he's led a life many would envy. But he's never mistaken the glamorous surface of the world he inhabits for life's essence, and he's eager to offer his views on religion (he's a secular humanist), the afterlife (there is none) and politics ("'Kindness covers all of my political beliefs."). What makes the experience of spending a few days in his company even more pleasurable is an accessible, almost conversational prose style that has helped make him such a popular critic for nearly 45 years.
There are certain books it's a privilege to review, and LIFE ITSELF is one of that small number. Facing terrible pain, disfigurement and loss, Roger Ebert long ago could have retreated into a private, silent world. Instead, he's still sending out small sparks of light from the inside of a darkened movie theater and now in this honest, deeply felt reminiscence. That's a tribute to him, and a gift to all of us.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
on April 5, 2014
This autobiography is not a great book. Still, it is someone's life and there is always something to learn from every man's rambling, but this book is self-indulgent and suffers from a lack of a strong editor. The reader can tell that Ebert just wrote whatever he wanted and they published it. I just about quit the book a third of the way through--chapter after chapter about Urbana-Champaign in the 1950s from the point of view of a kid on a bike doing nothing particularly interesting. The first section is painful. It gets better, but still, don't pick this up until you have read Chernow and Massie and Manchester and so many others.
But there were a few nuggets worth sharing:
1. Siskel and Ebert both interviewed Dolly Parton (separately) at the opening junket for 9-to-5, held in Dallas. They both felt a powerful almost spiritual, healing or comforting, spirit in her presence that Ebert never had felt before or afterwards. Dolly Parton had greatly impacted both of them in a short period of time--she must be a transcendent person, full of grace.
2. Ebert loved London, going 2 or 3 times each year. He wrote a book about it: A Perfect London Walk. He liked to go to the same places each time, following a routine and becoming familiar with the same places as they changed over the years. It was like he was touching totems and becoming familiar with the foreign over the decades. He took great joy in seeing the same biker guy come in every afternoon to a certain pub and take the same table. They never spoke, but Ebert knew he would be there and watched for him. Odd. But beautiful in a way. It seems, at least before his marriage to Chaz, he was happiest in London.
3. "One of the most touching descriptions of Judaism I have ever heard", said Ebert referring to a discussion with Siskel about Judaism, which Siskel took very seriously. Siskel said: "It wasn't necessary to think too much about an afterlife, what what important was this life, how we live it, what we contribute, our families, and the memories we leave. The importance of Judaism isn't simply theological or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theologically at all, it is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years and so it is important that we continue."
4. He broke free, totally away from his mother, as an adult after she became an alcoholic. Completely cut her out of his life. She was a good woman and a good mother when Ebert was growing up, but become an alcoholic and became unbearable. Ebert was also an alcoholic for a few decades so he wasn't too hard on her, but to be happy, as a practical matter had to cut her out of his life. Sad. He cured his alcoholism through AA. He swore by it and attended meetings for the rest of his healthy life, wherever he was traveling he found meetings.
5. When Ebert was diagnosed with cancer, all his doctors recommended surgery. He got on the internet and determined that a new unproven neutron radiation treatment was the way to go. He debated his doctors for months until they agreed to give it a try. He is humble enough in this bio to admit that this was a huge mistake and directly led to the loss of his jaw (disfigurement) and would lead to an earlier than necessary death. He believes that if he had listened to his doctors and had the surgery, he would not have lost the jaw completely. He strongly cautions against following his example and trying to be an internet expert on your disease--trust your doctors, they really know more than you do and have your best interests at heart.
6. After he lost the ability to eat, being nourished completely by tube, he missed food, at first. But gradually he stopped missing food because he started remembering it. He could close his eyes and in his mind eat a burger from Stake and Shake, his favorite place from his childhood. He could remember with beautiful detail a soup in a cafe in the south of France, or the chips in a London pub. He was able to enjoy food, maybe more than ever before in his life, even though he could not eat it. I found this touching and insightful into how beautiful our memory can be.
7. Ebert was not a religious man, rejecting the Catholicism of his childhood (even after attending a Catholic school). ("They [the Catholic Church] have been fighting a holding action for a thousand years.") He considered himself a Humanist. He didn't think the existence of God was likely, but didn't call himself an atheist or agnostic because he wanted to be humble in the face of "the mystery we are forced to confess". "Absolutists frighten me", he said of hard core atheists. Maybe his commitment to AA moderated his rejection of God. But he rejected the idea a God that talked to man, even if men believed they heard his voice. He held an odd mix of doubt and reverence for how ignorant we are. He hated the prosperity gospel and sects that proselyte aggressively--"A worthy church must grow through attraction, not promotion".
8. In spite of religious estrangement, once in the hospital he was laying dead on the table and the doctors had given up on him, stopping their treatments. Ebert says he was not ready to die yet and was aware that he wanted to live. His wife Chaz was in the room and she claimed she could literally feel his heartbeat inside of her, that she could feel him not ready to die and wanting to live. Chaz told the doctors to try once more, that she was certain that he would live and that he was ready to be revived. They did and Ebert lived. He did not attribute this experience to a God with a beard and holes in his hands, but recognized it as an unexplained and merciful miracle.
9. Egbert loved and lived by a Brenden Beane [sp?] quote: "I respect kindness in human beings, first of all, and kindness to animals. I don't respect the law. I have total irreverence with anything connected to society, except that which makes the road safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and the old men and old women warmer in the winter, and happier in the summer."
10. "Kindness sums up all my political beliefs. No need to spell them out."
Well, these comments have some pretty good stuff in them, but don't be fooled. The book wasn't that good--this is like a trailer that contains all the good parts of the movie. Ebert was a nice guy, a genuinely good guy, but this isn't a great autobiography.
on November 23, 2011
Ebert is a beautiful writer and his prose is terrific throughout the book. His choices in subjects, however, are a bit peculiar. He obviously is deeply passionate about some of the surprising topics in the book. His fondness for nostalgia comes across as he discusses Steak n' Shake, the Daily Illini, his old dog, the Tribune, Siskel and of course, Chaz. Some of his thought process seems random and disjointed -- there is little narrative thrust. For this reader, it was difficult to share the passion for some of the more obscure characters and I found myself drifting off during some chapters more than others. I considered putting the book down during the Tribune chapters, but wisely decided against it.
The book is clearly more for Ebert than for followers of his career. He races through the chronology of the TV show without a mention of the current iteration, or even Richard Roeper for that matter. He talks in depth about his experiences with Russ Meyer and a select number of actors and directors he cherishes, but little about other experiences near the film industry. Cannes gets discussed, but more for colorful characters he encounters rather than his own experiences. Even his own film festival is hardly mentioned.
Ebert has lived and continues to live a fascinating life. We get to know the man and some his tastes, but I think too many fascinating experiences were left on the cutting room floor.
on September 24, 2011
Many memoirs, especially some that I have read recently, allow a small bit of light to shine on the author's words. Not so with Roger Ebert. His own story, titled "Life Itself", contains just about everything a reader (and in the past, a viewer) would like to know about him. It's a book of reflection, humor and great courage.
Ebert grew up during the Eisenhower years and for those of us who did also, it certainly was a time of innocence, compared to the 1960s and later. The author takes some time to explain the friction between his mother and him about the Catholic Church. She wanted him to save himself for the church. He never got close to that. It is fitting that he discusses his spirituality at the end of the book and how he grew into it and away from Catholicism. The first hundred pages or so of "Life Itself" are sort of standard memoir fare, but things really start to take off when he gets to London. From this point on, the book only gets better.
During and after London, Ebert gets passionate about everything. He gets hired at a very early age to become film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and an unanticipated career begins. He drinks a lot and loves the company of both men and women. It's a heady time for Ebert. But then he confronts his alcoholism at the same time his mother enters into her own period of similar abuse. One can see the "color" of this memoir developing.
There are chapters devoted to movie stars and directors he gets to know with some great anecdotes sprinkled through. One involving Robert Mitchum's getting lost in Pittsburgh is terrifically funny. And you can almost hear John Wayne in conversation with Ebert. Not surprisingly, Woody Allen turns out to be as neurotic as he appears on screen. He does devote a long chapter to Gene Siskel and at first I was surprised Siskel isn't mentioned more in the book, but Ebert has other people he also wants us to know. The pages of his "romances" are worth every penny.
The most reflective parts come at the end. His illness and operations are described thoroughly and without rancor. He devotes long passages to his wife, Chaz, and how she has been his most wonderful partner. And being very direct, Ebert talks about his future.
This is a warm and open book. It is full of a range of emotions, written at a time when Ebert has the chance to tell readers about his life. In fact, the simple title, "Life Itself", almost speaks out saying, "here I am". I highly recommend it.
Dear Roger Ebert,
You were the greatest film critic in the world. No one has ever or will ever eclipse you. Before I watched a movie, I always read your review. You and Gene Siskel broke ground with your Siskel and Ebert at the Movies show, introducing the thumb rating and more.
You surveyed movies with an eye for detail, a piercing knowledge of plot, acting, cinematography, and direction, a brilliant vocabulary, a brilliant insight into the theme and message of the film, and a style of writing that audiences loved everywhere. I remember your infamous North review ("Hated hated hated hated hated this movie."). I remember reading your reviews on Hitchcock, and thinking, "Wow, I didn't think of it that way. Brilliant!"
On top of that, you were a great family man, a loving husband, a devoted father, and a courageous cancer survivor. Throughout numerous operations and surgeries, you remained cheerful and never lost your sense of humour. You were modest, courageous, funny, and down-to-earth.
The entire cinematic world is devastated by your loss. You were a great critic - more than a great critic, and will be sorely missed. Our deepest sympathies go out to Chaz Ebert and your granddaughters.
R.I.P, Roger Ebert.
on March 14, 2012
Seems strange to review Roger Ebert. He and Gene Siskel made watching the movies a little more fun and actually forced viewers to think about what they spent their money on. I am glad for that. I certainly see the whole process of film making entirely different now. But Roger is also an excellent writer, not only of reviews of the films but of life itself. If nothing else, Roger Ebert is honest. He had to be to face the demons and challenges in his personal life and if he weren't, I don't believe he would be here today. Roger takes us from his childhood in a typical religious educated family of the 1940's and Catholic schools into the 1950's segueing into his awakenings in collegiate life, to international travels and friends, where he experienced much wonder and much pain. So much of this life prepared him for successes including a Pulitzer prize, a very popular television show and fame as half the best movie reviewing couple in tv history. But along the way, came excesses including overeating and alcohol. Sometimes people have a cathartic moment or meeting and this happened to Roger. It was this person who prepared him for recovering from his excesses and gave him the ability to dig deep in his psyche to deal with what was to come health wise and for the loss of his business partner and friend Gene. You will laugh, roll your eyes, probably be stunned and read in awe, but mostly you will fly thru this book, feeling as if Roger is sitting in the room with you, telling you these tales as he would reveal them to a friend. I highly recommend this wonderful and accessible memoir and I hope Roger Ebert had another book of small treasures ahead. I don't think the stories will ever get old nor will he run out of them.