In the 1950s, long before he won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism, Roger Ebert spent many a Saturday afternoon sipping root beer and munching jawbreakers, Necco Wafers and licorice at the Princess Theater in his home town of Urbana, Ill. Five cartoons, a newsreel, a Batman, Superman or Rocketman serial and then a double bill — a Lash LaRue western followed by a Bowery Boys or Abbott and Costello comedy — flashed before him.
Ebert’s memoir, “Life Itself,” resembles one of those movie marathons. Tales from childhood, interviews with film stars and directors, funny and touching stories about colleagues, and evocative essays about trips unspool before the reader in a series of loosely organized, often beautifully written essays crafted by a witty, clear-eyed yet romantic raconteur.
Ebert begins with his childhood, a time when he did not, as one might think, escape an unhappy home at the movies. His parents sometimes quarreled over money, but mostly Roger’s account of the family’s life in Urbana suggests the Midwestern comfort of a Booth Tarkington short story.
On summer nights, the Eberts sipped homemade lemonade on the front porch of a two-bedroom white stucco house with green awnings. They talked to neighbors and watched for fireflies as “the sounds of radios, voices, distant laughter would float on the air.” Young Roger founded the Roger Ebert Stamp Company, published a neighborhood newspaper and read voraciously, developing a passion for the novels of Thomas Wolfe.
Also emerging was a passion for journalism. At 16, Ebert covered high school sports for the Urbana News-Gazette, and then, as a student at the University of Illinois, became the decidedly liberal editor of the Daily Illini. After graduation he landed a job at the Chicago Sun-Times, where, in 1967, the features editor named Ebert the paper’s film critic.
With no formal film education, Ebert headed to the movies, heeding Pauline Kael’s approach to film: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”
Over time, Ebert developed guidelines for his work. He likes movies about “Good People,” an elastic definition that includes Hannibal Lecter (“the victim of his unspeakable depravities . . . he tries to do the right thing.”) And Ebert hesitates to hurt people: “I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can’t help how they look any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat.”
Ebert’s take on film critic Gene Siskel, his co-host for the TV series “At the Movies,” should quell persistent rumors that the men disliked each other. Yes, they feuded over films so intensely that the studio where they taped often had to be cleared. But underneath the tensions, Ebert says, he cared for Siskel like a brother. Of Disney and CBS execs who dropped plans for a sitcom starring the men as rival critics, Ebert says, “Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.”
Ebert’s work as a film critic sent him traveling, and his wonderfully personal essays on places around the world where he seeks solitude are highlights of the book, rich in reflections, imagery and sensory detail. Travelers who return year after year to the same destination will savor Ebert’s reflections on these rituals:
“I have many places where I sit and think, ‘I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.’ Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath. . . . These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life. Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.”
In 2006 Ebert received a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. The surgeries that followed left him unable to eat, drink or speak and looking “like an exhibit in the Texas Chainsaw Museum.” Is he unhappy? Not really, partly because he began pouring his “regrets, desires and memories” into a blog, which led to his doing this book. Because of the writing, Ebert says, he was lucky: “I wrote, therefore I lived.”
Ebert’s luck is also our luck. We can nibble Twizzlers, Twinkies and Milk Duds and enjoy Ebert’s marathon of memories.
Bartell is an arts and travel writer based in Manhattan.
By Roger Ebert
Grand Central. 436 pp. $27.99