Roger Ebert’s recent death prompted me to read his 2011 book, Life Itself: A Memoir. When it comes to film critics and memoirs, I’m with Pauline Kael, who is quoted at the top of this blog: “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” Roger Ebert reviewed thousands of films, and taking that enormous body of work alongside his television appearances, we might be forgiven for thinking we already know the man.
There is very little in Life Itself about specific movies; it’s not a compilation of reviews. He writes a lot about movies in general, though. There are chapters about Russ Meyer, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog. These chapters are very much in the memoir tradition, in the way a traditional movie review is not.
But the majority of Life Itself goes beyond movies, offering a picture of Ebert that isn’t part of his film writing. It’s not that a Pauline Kael (or a Steven Rubio) had no life outside of her film writing. But she injected so much of her self into her reviews that over time we got to “know her”. Ebert certainly used a personal style in his reviews, but with Life Itself, he wants to record what his life was like when he wasn’t reviewing movies.
Which is why, as we reach the 12th chapter, we’re still only up to high school. By then, we’ve already learned a lot about growing up in Illinois in the 40s and 50s. Ebert has specific memories of his past, and he trusts those memories (perhaps more than he should). His experiences, related to us via his fine writing, are interesting in a generic way, by which I mean it’s not crucial that we’re reading about the childhood of a famous man. We’re reading about an American childhood.
This is followed by several chapters about college, and the period just after he graduated. By chapter 20, we’re knee deep in the life of a journalist at the tail end of the “Front Page” era. Ebert is a fine raconteur, and his tales of people, famous and not, are fascinating.
Things proceed in a roughly chronological pattern: a Studebaker he loved, Gene Siskel, his marriage to Chaz (she’s present throughout the book, Ebert sees everything through her eyes, even the decades before they met), all the way to his 50th high school reunion. Outside of an odd tendency to repeat himself, these are all delightful to read, again whether the subject is something about which we know (his partnership with Siskel) or something about which we are clueless (I had no idea Studebakers were ever considered anything but a joke). He finishes with three chapters that form something of an elegy, as if he wanted to be sure to get it all down before he died and someone else’s version became public. Just before that, though, he includes a chapter about Studs Terkel, because after all, if you knew Studs, you’d be remiss not to spend some time on his life. He calls Terkel “the greatest man I knew well … the most widely and deeply loved man I ever hope to know.” Studs belongs at the end, alongside the passages about the end of life, because he exuded so much life, himself.
I think people would enjoy this book, even if they didn’t know much about Ebert’s film work. But for those of us who followed him right up to his last years, when he became King of the Internet, Life Itself is more than an interesting memoir about an interesting man who knew interesting people. It fills in gaps we didn’t know existed, adding depth to his legacy. Perhaps Kael should have written those memoirs, after all.