The first time Roger Ebert and his movie-reviewing co-host, Gene Siskel, were scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show, they were both stricken with anxiety. In the green room, a writer mentioned that Johnny might ask them for the names of a few recent movies they liked. Both drew an utter blank. Siskel frantically dialed their own show’s producer. “Name some movies we like,” he blurted.
But movies play a subordinate role in Life Itself, a new memoir by Ebert, the surviving member of the original “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” reviewing team. Instead, it’s an indulgent, finely nuanced survey of the impressions of a man who has, when it comes to the movies, pretty much seen it all. In the past few years, Ebert lost part of his throat to cancer, along with his ability to speak. And like his voluminous blog posts and tweets, Life Itself reads like the work of a man with more to say than ever.
Roger Ebert grew up Catholic but now considers himself a secular humanist. Some of his most memorable moments have come when he’s sitting alone in a café in a faraway city. He loves being surrounded by piles of books, and though he’s learned to live without solid food, he still dreams of the textures of certain cheap candies—Milk Duds, Good & Plenty, Chuckles.
Reporting on these impressions seems to take the Proustian notion of “involuntary memory” to an extreme, but Ebert luxuriates in it, to luxurious effect. He long ago learned to review movies by describing how they made him feel as he left the theater, he writes. In that spirit, Life Itself exudes a sense of calm, like a garden stroll. It feels almost precisely like a memoir should feel, with profound insights to be discovered in some of the least “meaningful” experiences.
Life Itself does offer plenty of autobiographical history, starting with a somewhat tedious descent through Ebert’s family tree. Duly noted are his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times, when old-school reporters still found most of their stories in barrooms, and endless afternoons spent with movie stars and directors—Robert Mitchum, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen. Ebert suggests that John Wayne “was a born conservative, but in an old-fashioned, simple, and patriotic way. He would have had contempt for the latter-day weirdos of today’s Right.”
But this is Ebert’s memoir, and he takes the idea literally. His desire to write about what he remembers was driven in large part by starting a blog, and the book frequently makes that plain. Certain chapters stand alone, such as the one about Dan-Dan the Yo-Yo Man and another about Steak ’N Shake, the beloved fast-food chain Ebert grew up with in Urbana.
Writing in chunks, Ebert repeats himself a few too many times, with multiple references to the interview he did with Lee Marvin for Esquire, and repeat reminders that he’s good friends with the filmmaking couple behind the early indie El Norte. Yet the overall flavor crowds out the imperfections.
Recounting his shame that he didn’t have the courage to speak out against his fraternity’s whites-only policy, Ebert confesses that he often compartmentalized his relationships: “the women I dated, my handful of black friends, my fellow faux beatniks” were all kept separate. “Not many people ever saw me whole,” he writes, but readers will in this book.
The thing about the movies, Ebert wants readers to know, is that there is no such thing as an old one: “I look at silent movies sometimes and do not feel I am looking at old films; I feel I am looking at a Now that has been captured.” Life Itself offers a kind of sensory overload of scents, sounds, tastes, and textures. The 69 years of Ebert’s own Now have been deftly put on paper.