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Life Itself by Roger Ebert

December 21, 2018

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Roger Ebert was an Illinois boy through and through. He grew up in Urbana, attended the University of Illinois and gained fame as a film critic in Chicago. Much of the appeal of this book, for me, was the nostalgia. I spent four years at the University of Illinois, four more in Chicago. Much of my time in Urbana-Champaign was spent in film classes, so Ebert’s shadow loomed large. I used a thick volume of his film reviews as a frequent reference, and he would be spotted on campus at least annually at the film festival he founded.

So when he talks about Lincoln Hall and Gregory Hall, I know the look and smell of those places, and the feel of the seats of the film theater in the basement of the main library. I saw Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which Ebert wrote with Russ Meyer, at the Thunderbird Theater in Urbana. It’s a schlocky, campy b-movie that partly mimicked, partly mocked the exploitation films of the 60s. I remember wondering how a nerdy, serious film critic like Ebert could be responsible for such a trashy, insane (but fun) film. It seemed unlike him.

But there was a sort of rebel—a Midwestern rebel—under that doughy Midwestern exterior. Ebert was a stringent supporter of civil rights, social justice and free expression. He loved artists who pushed the boundaries.

This memoir covers his upbringing, his career as a reporter and film critic and occasional screenwriter, his life among celebrities, his lifelong love of film and quite a few other aspects of his life. He writes with the panache of an old journalist. He likes to tell stories and paint pictures, describe the bitter cold of Chicago streets and the changing seasons, the taste of the food and beer.

But Ebert is also funny, particularly at his own expense. He remembers, shortly after moving to Chicago and getting hired at the Chicago Sun-Times, commenting on a hockey game broadcast where the teams were scoring like crazy. One of the elder reporters gave him a funny look. “Where you from, kid?” Urbana. “You ever seen a hockey game?” No. “That’s what I thought, you asshole. Those are the game highlights.”

In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with cancer. It required the removal of his thyroid and salivary glands, later the removal of his jaw. He lost the ability to eat and speak. He talks about not looking in the mirror for a long time after the surgery, then the despair after several more surgeries failed to improve his appearance or return his speech.

He writes about how Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree helped revive his love of literature in those dark days after his surgeries. How he found solace in the main character, a lowlife alcoholic. Ebert didn’t want to be cheered up; Suttree was someone he could commiserate with, an acknowledgement of the ugliness of life. He found it comforting.

But he eventually grew to accept his new face. With his typical self-deprecating humor, he compares his looks to the phantom of the opera, then digresses about which film version he means, finally just saying he looks “on a timeline, 72% of the way between the way I used to look and that thing that jumps out of that guy’s intestines in Alien.”

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Ebert died in 2013, and the entire film universe celebrated his life. He doesn’t consider his own importance in this memoir, but it’s hard to understate it. He was the most famous film critic of all time.

I really enjoyed this book. Partly because of the writing, but more because there were so many things that felt familiar—places, films, books. And Ebert’s fortitude as he reinvented his career after his surgeries is inspiring. He comes to grips with his appearance and inability to speak, accepts that his life as a minor television star is over, and returns to his roots as a writer, this time a prolific blogger.

It seems only fitting to rate this book with the simple gesture Ebert made famous: thumbs up.

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