A charmed life, with a little help from his friends

Roger Ebert's "Life Itself'

5 minute read
Ebert: Tickling the keys of our common music.
Ebert: Tickling the keys of our common music.
First you read the review, then you see the movie and then read the review again, not to see if you agree but to see what you missed, like watching someone else sweep the floor and really get into the corners.

I loved the first chapters in Life Itself, Roger Ebert's memoir: his happy childhood, his one dog, the vivid characters such as Dan-Dan the Yo-Yo man who drove a 1950 Hudson with "step-down drive" that cornered better than a Chevy or a Ford. Women aren't usually interested in the history of American cars, but Ebert makes everything so fascinating that I wondered again what kind of touring car it was that picked up the hero in Midnight in Paris. Anybody know?

I have a nerve critiquing the übercritic who has won every trophy, every award, and our hearts and minds all those years with his beloved TV program, "At the Movies." Well, a cat may look at a king. I found Life Itself just right for a long winter's night revisiting many movies I missed either because I lived too far away or I didn't like the politics of, say, John Wayne.

"He could talk to anyone," Ebert reminisces about Wayne. "He didn't perform, he embodied."

Names dropping furiously

Wayne was indeed a man's man, drinking and shooting and riding into certain death in True Grit, against the iconic backdrop of Monument Valley's red rock formations. Easy to understand why Roger Ebert, who may never have shot anybody at all, would admire this heroic Western archetype.

But Ebert is also chums with pointy-heads such as Ingmar Bergman, Werner Herzog and Marty Scorsese. He's invited to hang around sets, he has dinner with these guys, they attend his wedding. The names are dropping fast and furious because Ebert has known every movie better than anybody for years and years.

Touch of envy here. Did Roger Ebert, as he chronicled the stars, endure writerly heartbreaks on his rise to the top? Make deals with the devil?

Alas, small-time journalists, part-time critics, full-time wannabefamous writers will find no solace tracking Ebert's rise. According to Ebert, his career was a slam-dunk.

Where'd the money come from?

"I was born inside the movie of my life," the book opens. His parents encouraged his writing. He published his own newsletter as a child and walked into one newspaper job after another.

A high school friend's father hired him to cover sports. He stuck with his school chums from the start and they have looked after each other, moving in and out of important reporting, editing and publishing positions ever since.

Here I had to close the book for a day or two because I became rather grumpy.

"After returning from Cape Town (Rotary Club sponsorship), I did another two semesters of graduate school at Illinois. I'd been accepted as a Ph. D. candidate by the University of Chicago."

La la la. Where did the money come from? Well, I can attest that nobody was offering girls any sponsorship to anywhere in those days, and Roger's only a year younger than I.

A few words about sex

Out in the boonies where I grew up, writing was no business for women. Women wrote for the society pages and slept with the editors, period. I never even heard of a journalism school until after I buried my ambitions in marriage and children.

And here's another thing: Ebert didn't have to worry about children. In my day, women did not plan their babies. You either had sex or led a very celibate life, and not many of us could stand that. Even if women were "barren," you expected some kid responsibility, somewhere.

I peeked at the chapter on "perambulating around London," where he nosed into darling bookstores, hoisted pints in the pubs with his pals, discovered little ethnic restaurants. Sadly, they are all gone now so don't try to find them yourself, Reed. It's too late for you!

Okay, I got it. What a grand life. By now I hate the guy.

Drinking problem

But oops, he was a drunk. Who knew? Apparently drinking interfered with his life enough to put him on the wagon. Thankfully, he spares the reader the steps of that journey to sobriety. Never did have children but married a lovely woman with enough family to fill his Thanksgiving tables for years to come.

Then, another oops. Jaw cancer returned and tipped him over. Almost.

He's good about that, too, giving us just enough detail to understand the failed reconstructive procedures and how it feels to lose a rich, fulfilling TV career. I loved the last chapters so much that I went back and read the book all over again. I forgave him his Big Life because he's such an honest writer.

Like a skilled jazz piano player, Ebert tickles the keys of our common music just enough to evoke the whole melody, many melodies. Now I'm in love with Roger Ebert.

A somber note: His TV program, "Ebert Presents At the Movies," may go off the air in 2012 for lack of funding. But that won't keep Ebert from what he does best: playing our music at www.rogerebert.com.

What, When, Where

Life Itself: A Memoir. By Roger Ebert. Grand Central Publishing, 2011. 448 pages; $27.99. www.amazon.com.

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