This is a documentary about a critic struggling to fight facial cancer while trying to stay meaningful in his profession. He was never on the screen, but he certainly became a part of it.
As a guy who acknowledged long ago my passionate love affair with movies, the late movie critic Roger Ebert was a guy whose opinions I always followed. Without question, his TV show with Gene Siskel brought movie reviews front and center in many lives.
Mr. Ebert passed away last year after a 7-year fight with thyroid and jawbone cancer, and he and his family put up a heroic struggle. He and his wife Chaz married when Ebert was 50, and she inspired him to the point that he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
This documentary begins with his childhood and scans the beginning of his career at the Chicago Tribune, where he was hired as a young movie critic when an opening developed. The film does not ignore his nightly adventures at several local Chicago pubs, leading him to a severe alcohol addiction where he eventually joined AA before his marriage.
The film, directed by Steve James, spends a great deal of time on Ebert’s last years, where his face was terribly disfigured as a result of numerous surgeries. Losing his jaw and lower teeth, you could literally see the bandages taped around his neck when looking through his mouth. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but Mr. Ebert never lost his sense of humor.
The strength of the movie focuses on his longstanding relationship with his TV partner, Gene Siskel. It began with difficulty, as Siskel was the reviewer with the competing Chicago Sun-Times and they didn’t even correspond during their first 5 years of employment.
However, their rivalry and competitiveness was constantly demonstrated during their mutual reviews, and they would plow in to each other with unashamed glee. One friend described them at their peak as Siamese twins joined at the ass. They were at all times a treasure to watch.
Both Siskel and Ebert’s widows appear with multiple interviews concerning their husbands’ relationship. Honest and open, they both demonstrated that our boys tastes in women could never be criticized.
Tragically, Siskel died of brain cancer while in his 50s and Ebert followed him years later. They both embraced films not just as an art form, but as a reflection of our daily lives. You could be entertained and still be touched emotionally, and in many ways the cinema was an educational process.
Ebert was a pompous SOB, and he held no opinion more important than his own. Yet, while he hobnobbed with many of the stars, he still pulled no punches. As an example, both he and Siskel helped Martin Scorcese out of a very dark moment in his life, and they became good friends. Yet Scorcese laughed while being interviewed, noting how Siskel later skewered his directorial talents in the Paul Newman film The Color of Money (1986).
While this seems a bit absurd, I still have a connection to both gentlemen when I leave a theater and mull over my thoughts. To use Mr. Ebert’s memorable line, “See you at the movies.”