For more than 20 years, film critic and historian Roger Ebert was an omnipresent presence on television, as much a part of the fabric of American life as Johnny Carson’s famous golf swing. With his lanky adversary and sometimes partner-in-crime Gene Siskel, Ebert guided moviegoers through the great highs and dismal lows of the world’s cinema, giving a big “Thumbs Up” to the movies he championed. Meanwhile, he used his famous pen at the Chicago Sun-Times, where one scathing 1994 review read, “Hated hated hated hated hated this movie.” (Rob Reiner’s North, in case you were wondering).
Read more about books on film.
In recent years, the critic has suffered from both thyroid cancer and the dramatic steps taken to treat his condition, the removal of his lower jaw. In 2010, a media spectacle erupted when Esquire magazine published a widely circulated profile that included photos of Ebert looking dramatically different than the public’s image of him.
In his latest work, Ebert has created a no-holds-barred portrait of his life. In Life Itself, he writes about life in the newsroom, writing screenplays for Russ Meyer, and encounters with characters ranging from John Wayne to Martin Scorsese. But he also writes of his life’s more dramatic moments, from his celebrated “date” with Oprah Winfrey, to his struggle with alcoholism, to a new life without the ability to eat, drink or speak.
Of course, none of these challenges have slowed Ebert’s audacious opinions, from his weekly movie reviews, a rich online blog and even a Twitter feed that recently took heat for criticism of the drunk-driving death of Jackass star Ryan Dunn. Ebert told us about the book’s release and his career as “film critic since time immemorial.”
You've been writing about movies, actors, directors and the world at large for nearly 50 years. What made you decide this was the time to reflect on your celebrated life and career?
It seemed to be high time. The experience of my blog convinced me that there might be more interest in my life than I thought, even though I've spent so much of it dong the same thing, writing about movies.
Many readers of your work are exposed only to your newspaper reviews. What do you think readers will make of your long-form writing in Life Itself?
My reviews have always tended to be first-person and discursive, so I believe they'll feel at home.
Your chapters on the Sun-Times are something of a love letter to the newspaper business. What do you miss most about working in a newsroom?
The whole lost raffish atmosphere of a band of characters. Today's newspaper offices are more like insurance companies. And the buildings no longer tremble when the mighty presses roll to life.
Some of us shared our whole lives watching you and your sparring partner Gene Siskel on television. What do you think readers will be most surprised to learn about your relationship with him?
That we loved one another.
The latter half of your book has an interesting structure with specific chapters dedicated to luminaries like Ingmar Bergman, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. Did these grow out of essays, or were they just memories you wanted to capture here?
I had some privileged moments with great artists in the world of the cinema, and I thought I should include them in the book. Experiences of that sort are no longer possible in the world of publicists who are control freaks.
You are delightfully honest and forthright about your appearance, writing "I may seem tragic to you, but I seem fortunate to myself." Were you surprised by the dramatic reaction to Esquire's famous profile?
That's putting it mildly. It was a media storm. Having done so many interviews myself, I knew how good a writer Chris Jones was, and he wrote a wonderful article.
After a lifetime working in other mediums, you've embraced the Internet with enthusiasm. What appeals to you about working on the web and in social media?
It's immediate, interactive and personal.
At the same time, you've recently courted controversy for some pointed comments on Twitter. Are there drawbacks to working without an editor and a net?
It is the nature of Twitter to fire from the hip. What I could use is online copy-editing! But I can't imagine having a Twitter editor.
The novel ends with a graceful adaptation of your essay, "Go Gentle Into That Good Night." Besides your body of work and the memories captured in Life Itself, what legacy would you hope to leave?
My reviews, thousands of them. The movies will last, and people will long be curious about what a critic thought at the time.
One more time, what's the last movie you hated, hated, hated, and what film would you recommend everyone see?
The most recent hate was A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy. I think everyone should see...well, Citizen Kane, why not?