What Roger Ebert Learned

How the movies offered him a self he didn’t know to want.

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And, for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

—Roger Ebert, Life Itself

Roger Ebert, the most popular and powerful movie critic ever (and, given the collapse of paid movie criticism, quite possibly the most popular and powerful forevermore), had a long-simmering epiphany.

 Steve James’ new documentary about Ebert’s life—which, along with Ebert’s memoir, is called Life Itself—tells a moving story about a man who was both extraordinarily gifted and quite shut down. (Ebert’s description of the movies as “a machine” seems instructive.) Life Itself is the story of how this low-affect man learned (after years of sobriety, a late-in-life marriage and extreme suffering) to become cuddly.

By the end of his life, he seems particularly impressive. I’ve never seen anyone who suffered the devastation of cancer in exactly the way Ebert so publicly did, with his lower jaw removed, leaving only a flap of skin that had once covered his mouth and chin. (Despite his having once passed on a note which said “Kill me,” he’s largely described at this point as “jolly.”) After his TV partner, Gene Siskel, died of brain cancer in 1999 without telling Ebert that he was dying—Siskel was afraid that Disney, the show’s parent company, would fire him—Ebert vowed to be as publicly transparent as possible when he got sick. He let Esquire run an unsparing photo of his post-jaw-removal face on its cover. And he insisted that James film his health ravages if he wanted to make the movie. “It’s my movie too,” he emailed the director.

Along the way, we see him discover that he has power to do real good. We learn here about the many filmmakers in his debt. Martin Scorsese talks about how, in the mid-1980s, cocaine addiction ruined his career and life. He says he flat-lined at one point and assumed his career was over. But then Ebert and Siskel threw a festival celebrating his movies and he was resurrected. He’s put his plaque from their festival on a wall in his home “where I know I’ll see it once every five seconds in my day.” James himself owes Siskel and Ebert for celebrating his ultimately-Oscar-winning documentary Hoop Dreams, a debt he addresses with Life Itself.

After years of alcoholism and what one friend describes as the worst taste in women he’d ever seen, something profound changes for Ebert. We meet his wife, Chaz (whom we quickly love), who met him at an A.A. meeting when he was 50. We learn about his bond to Chicago and, of course, about his fraught relationship with Siskel. Their low emotional IQ was one of the show’s strengths, as we got to look in on two self-serious, insightful men bicker over the merits of Benji: The Hunted. But after losing the use of his voice, Ebert becomes reflective and sentimental. At one point he does a kindness for Siskel’s widow and then, after she writes her thanks to him, he sends her a vulnerable note about how his ego got in the way of a relationship with a man he loved as no other.

By the end, Ebert has come to see his life as a kind of screenplay. He calls cancer his “third act.” The road to making him into a man who could have a great love affair, delight in children and learn, with the ancients, how to “die well” largely came through giving himself to the “empathy machine” of movies—a machine he very much needed to give him something that didn’t come naturally to him. The product of that machine wouldn’t be just a new kind of connection with others, it would be a new self.

Ebert’s response to religion is illustrative. Here, for instance, are a few words from his review of The Passion of the Christ:

The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen. . . . It is a film about an idea. An idea that it is necessary to fully comprehend the Passion if Christianity is to make any sense. Gibson has communicated his idea with a singleminded urgency. Many will disagree. Some will agree, but be horrified by the graphic treatment. I myself am no longer religious in the sense that a long-ago altar boy thought he should be, but I can respond to the power of belief whether I agree or not, and when I find it in a film, I must respect it.

I’m grateful for a long-lasting, vicarious partnership with Ebert around “learning to identify with the people who are sharing this journey” with me, around the hope of moving beyond the “certain package” I was born with. I’m grateful for his late-in-life transparency about what that did for him.

Ebert’s final blog post came out two days before his death. It was filled with information about the great upcoming projects he had in store (and his website continues to operate with many contributors). But it also included these final public words, which don’t seem low-affect at all.

Thank you. Forty-six years ago on April 3, 1967, I became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of you have read my reviews and columns and even written to me since that time. . . . However you came to know me, I'm glad you did. . . . Thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.

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