CATHERINE KRUMMEY: A look at Ebert, the man

"He's a soldier of cinema ... and that touches my heart very deeply." Award-winning filmmaker Werner Herzog is one of the many notable figures to sing the praises of Roger Ebert in Steve James' documentary "Life Itself." Other filmmakers such as ...

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Roger Ebert (left) is the focus of the documentary “Life Itself,” based on his memoir by the same name. Gene Siskel (right) was his co-host for the film criticism TV shows “At the Movies” and “Siskel & Ebert.” Magnolia Pictures

“He’s a soldier of cinema … and that touches my heart very deeply.”

Award-winning filmmaker Werner Herzog is one of the many notable figures to sing the praises of Roger Ebert in Steve James’ documentary “Life Itself.” Other filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and critics including The New York Times’ A.O. Scott share their memories of and appreciation for him.

An adaptation of his memoir by the same name, “Life Itself” follows Ebert’s last days in this world with glimpses into what made him the most popular face and voice in film criticism.

While the film does give proper due to his achievements and skills, it also delves into his personal life, featuring interviews with his wife, Chaz; Gene Siskel’s wife, Marlene; and other friends and family members. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the movie is when his granddaughter, fighting back tears, recounts all the times she’s spent with Grandpa Roger, realizing those times would be coming to an end soon.

James puts viewers in the hospital rooms and rehab facilities with Ebert, giving an unflinching look at the trials he and his family faced in those last few months. The slow build, intertwined with glimpses into his past, makes his death that much more heartbreaking.


Hearing Chaz recount his final moments is also rather heart-wrenching, especially for those of us who feel any sort of attachment to Ebert, as a critic or a person.

I, myself, owe a great debt of gratitude to the man, and watching this documentary was a very emotional experience. When I was a little girl - and a teenager, for that matter, I would religiously tune into “Siskel & Ebert” every weekend to watch the two critics (and eventually Siskel’s replacement, Richard Roeper) get amped up about the movies they loved and hated. And I would get outraged or excited, too, depending on my thoughts on the movies.

In eighth grade (2000), I started my own movie news and reviews website. By the time my junior year of high school rolled around, I didn’t want to be an accountant anymore. I wanted to be a film critic, so I enrolled in my first journalism class. I chose to go to the University of Missouri not only because it has one of the best journalism programs in the country, but because there were film studies classes, too.

At Mizzou, I got my first two paying gigs as a film critic. Cut to a few years later, in spring 2013, when I was writing reviews for the paper I worked for, a co-host of a weekly radio show on movies and relentlessly filling up my social media accounts with movie-related posts.

I found out about Ebert’s passing just after I finished recording that radio program one week. I sat in my apartment, flipped through a couple of books written by him and cried.

He was my first journalism teacher. He helped fuel my passion for movies. He gave me a framework for discussing and writing about film.

And the movie addresses this, too. No, not me specifically, but the influence he’s had on an entire generation of journalists and filmmakers. Two younger filmmakers, Ava DuVernay and Ramin Bahrani, share beautiful stories about how Ebert has affected them, both in their careers and as human beings.

And that’s the thing about Ebert: Sure, he was a great film critic, but one of the other things he will be remembered for is his humanity. In his later years, following the loss of his voice due to his battle with throat cancer, he started a blog, “Roger Ebert’s Journal,” which is still available on


While he predominantly posted about movies, he also shared his musings on other things, such as family, local news from Chicago (his hometown), national news and international news. He wasn’t afraid to share his opinions with the world on everything from gun control to Chaz, the love of his life.

“She saved me from the fate of living out my life alone,” he wrote in one post.

Like all of us, Ebert’s life wasn’t all sunshine and roses - in addition to his deteriorating health, “Life Itself” also addresses his alcoholism and his odd foray into screenwriting (“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”). These details really flesh out James’ film and provide a few laughs in commentators’ honest reactions to “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” including Scorsese’s take on it.

With all the highs and lows of his career and life, Ebert will be remembered most for the way he championed film, writers, life and the people he held dearest.

“Life Itself” is available to rent on Amazon, Google Play and video-on-demand. I give it my very enthusiastic “thumbs up.”



Four stars out of five


Rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language

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