Since July 2006, Roger Ebert hasn’t been able to speak, eat or drink. He takes nutrition through a tube. Surgery for a tumor in his lower jaw eradicated the cancer but also led to the loss of the jaw.
“I would describe my condition,” he writes in his memoir, “Life Itself,” “as falling about 72 percent of the way along a timeline between how I looked in 2004 and the thing that jumps out of that guy’s intestines in ‘Alien.’”
As the jokiness suggests, Ebert isn’t prone to self-pity. Why should he be? He’s led a charmed life. Growing up in Urbana, Illinois, he fell into journalism when a friend’s father invited him to cover high-school football games for the local paper. He became a movie critic when a higher-up at the Chicago Sun-Times called him into a conference room and informed him that was his new beat.
The thumbs-up, thumbs-down TV show with his rival Chicago movie critic Gene Siskel was also someone else’s idea: “I had no conception of such a show and no desire to work with Siskel.” At the outset he was lousy at it, too.
But he was always a go-getter. He had a knack for interviewing, and the book includes entertaining reminiscences of Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum (a favorite), Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman and Werner Herzog. These anecdotes come later on, though; the first half covers his childhood and youth.
Much of it is Proustian, not in richness of texture or sharpness of observation but in sheer mass of detail. “I remember everything,” Ebert says, and, alas, he does: The book’s most serious flaw is his occasional inability to distinguish the fascinating from the mundane.
The world of Chicago newspapers brought him into contact with Mike Royko, Eppie Lederer (her pen name was Ann Landers), Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel. A lot of liquor flowed in that world, and Ebert writes frankly about his alcoholism.
He took his last drink in 1979: “Unless I go insane and start pouring booze into my G-tube, I believe I’m reasonably safe.” He married late but happily, after he sobered up.
He writes most affectingly about Gene Siskel, who died of cancer in 1999 after they’d spent 23 years “linked in a Faustian television format that brought us success at the price of autonomy.” Their onscreen tension “was not an act”; before working together they’d been “professional enemies,” and emotionally they stayed in a state of “permanent feud.”
But somewhere in their transition from local talking heads to national celebrities, they accepted that they were stuck with each other, and at that point, Ebert writes, “He became less like a friend than like a brother.”
One thing they didn’t talk about was Siskel’s cancer: “That’s how he wanted it, and that was his right.” Though Ebert doesn’t say so, it appears as though when he got sick himself he looked to his late partner for the model of how he didn’t want to behave.
He got “a jolt,” he writes, from the full-page photograph that accompanied a profile of him in Esquire last year. “But then I’m not a lovely sight,” he goes on, “and in a moment I thought, what the hell, it’s just as well it’s out there ... I didn’t need polite fictions.”
Not only doesn’t Ebert feel sorry for himself; he convinces you that, for everything he has had to give up, he’s still living a charmed life.
“Life Itself: A Memoir” is from Grand Central (436 pages, $27.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)