Before the screening began at last night’s Hollywood premiere of director Steve James’ Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, Ebert’s remarkable wife Chaz shared something with the packed crowd of industry notables that her late husband told her as they were embarking on the shooting of the film. “Roger said, ‘Make sure Steve doesn’t make a movie I don’t want to see’,” she laughed. Mission accomplished, but in a cruel stroke of irony for the world’s most famous film critic, he didn’t live to see it completed.
James, best known for his 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, has made a tough, entertaining, unsentimental and enormously moving film that everyone should want to see. It’s not just about a blue-collar kid from Chicago, who turned into a Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic. It’s mostly an unflinching and unapologetic account of a man determined to keep on keepin’ on after devastating cancer robbed him of his speech and ability to eat but not his mind, his love for movies or, most of all, his love for Chaz, his wife of 20 years who stood by him and kept him going long after others would have given up. “Roger lived his life out loud, even when he lost his physical voice,” she said. Of the movie, which is brutally honest about his illness and never looks away, my wife said, “It’s the greatest love story I have ever seen”. It is that too. Just before rolling the film, Chaz noted that she had an empty chair in the front row at the Arclight that said simply, ‘Reserved for Roger’ because “he told me I’ll always be in the front row cheering you on”.
Magnolia will release the film next week, and though the Academy’s documentary branch often ignores movies about the movies, this one is irresistible. Wouldn’t it be ironic if a movie about a film critic who wrote books called I Hated Hated HATED This Movie and Your Movie Sucks (among many others more positive to the medium) were to win an Oscar? I spotted plenty of Academy voters in the audience last night, including Acad President Cheryl Boone Isaacs.
Ebert’s name often came up every year when trying to predict who the Academy might choose for an Honorary Oscar, but it was commonly believed the Academy’s Board was never going to give its highest honor to a film critic! Maybe they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote an Oscar to the guy who actually wrote the screenplay for Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. But as Life Itself, and the autobiography on which it is based, so brilliantly shows, this man went way beyond that simplistic job title. As James said in his opening remarks: “There was no greater champion of our work than Roger. And no greater champion for Roger than Chaz“.
For whatever reason, I hadn’t previously caught up with the movie, which debuted at Sundance in January and recently played Cannes. At the afterparty I asked James if he had made any changes since Sundance, and he noted that the entire sequence set at the Cannes Film Festival was added in May, just before its special Out of Competition screening at this year’s Cannes Fest. I missed that one too, and I am glad I did as it turned into a bit of a disaster when the film shut down after 80 minutes and didn’t get going again for well over half an hour. Chaz said she thought to herself “what would Roger do?”, so she jumped up and did an impromptu Q&A to keep the French crowd happy.
James was the victim of one of Oscar’s most scandalous and ridiculous snubs when his incredible Hoop Dreams failed to make even the Documentary shortlist after most had thought the movie was a cinch to win. Its snub caused such an outcry that the Academy had to revisit the rules (something that happens often these days in that branch). In one of those odd Oscar quirks, the Film Editing branch did give Hoop Dreams a nomination that year, so James, who shared the nom with two others, did have some sort of bittersweet consolation prize. But I wondered what he thought about his prospects this time with Life Itself, which will be eligible for a Docu Feature nomination. He said so much good already has come from this experience that it just isn’t something he has his sights set on right now. There’s no question this film deserves serious consideration. It is easily one of the year’s best movies, period. Interestingly, there was a lot James had to leave out including any mention of EbertFest (that sequence was cut) and, oddly, Ebert’s At The Movies co-star Richard Roeper, who took over after Gene Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999 at age 53. There’s no mention at all of Roeper, but Siskel is all over this movie, and it really gets to the heart of their confounding relationship, a love/hate thing if ever there was one. Great stuff.
But overall Life Itself is itself about the remarkable life of Roger Ebert. And in a summer full of the kind of loud, bombastic popcorn blockbusters Ebert would review dutifully week after week, this is an alternative that definitely deserves a Thumbs Up.