Life Itself: A Memoir

Image of Life Itself: A Memoir
Release Date: 
September 13, 2011
Grand Central Publishing
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“. . . one of the joys of Roger Ebert’s writing [is that]: He invites the reader to participate. . . . [a] stunning memoir.

The first nine chapters of Roger Ebert’s stunning memoir might easily be skipped. They deal with his earliest formative years, his parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, buddies, nuns, Catholic school, hangouts, his first car, and his dog. They aren’t critically important chapters compared to what follows.

Yet even here there are foreshadowings of the meatier part of the book starting with chapter ten. We learn some hints about things that will happen later in Mr. Ebert’s life, particularly the richly rewarding extended African American family that he marries into.

“Chaz’s niece, Ina New-Jones, is greatly valued by me because she’s one of those rare people who always think I am funny. A bad comedian would never learn the truth from Miss Ina. She and I can instigate laughter in each other almost to the point of unconsciousness. I have spent most of my life perfecting the skills and compulsions of a very funny guy, and Ina is the only person who always agrees with me.”

With chapter ten, we begin to learn about Mr. Ebert’s (he’d probably say, “Mr. Ebert’s my father. I’m Roger.”) career in newspapers and the memoir begins to gather speed. Oddly enough, his education follows, as he was writing for newspapers in one way or another from an early age. He writes of a semester in Cape Town and then rolls on into London. By now, readers familiar with London will begin an appropriately silent dialogue with the author about the parts of the city he doesn’t mention. And that is one of the joys of Roger Ebert’s writing: He invites the reader to participate.

His chapters involving London also begin to introduce some palpable characters, and in time the characters he introduces us to are the famous people he has interviewed and, in many cases, developed that contact into long-term friendships. “I feel reluctant to write in a hurtful way; not always, but usually. 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.”

About the actor, John Wayne, Mr. Ebert wrote, “He sounded the way he looked. He was a small-town Iowa boy, a football player. He worked with great directors. He listened to them. He wasn’t a sex symbol. He didn’t perform, he embodied.”

And: “He was a totally nontheoretical actor. He never studied his craft. He became good at it because he went out into Monument Valley a great many times with Ford, and they made some of the greatest American movies without giving it much more thought than the whiskey and the poker games and the campfires with which they occupied their evenings. Those were Wayne’s great days, when Pappy and his wagon train camped out in the desert, far from Hollywood and its agents and moguls, and made what they used to call cowboy pictures.”

There are stories and insights of Ingmar Bergman, “At the Cannes Film Festival one year, Ingmar was talking with David Lean. ‘What kind of crew do you use,’ Lean asked him. ‘I make my films with eighteen good friends,’ said Ingmar. ‘That’s interesting,’ said Lean. ‘I make mine with one hundred and fifty enemies.’ ” He spends chapters on Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, and Werner Herzog, to name a few. He spends time remembering Gene Siskel and Studs Terkel and we are richer for his memories. And he paints a lovely portrait of his wife, Chaz.

It’s addictive reading. There are some juicy bits and a clear view into a world of celebrities, but not, thank goodness, in a breathless TMZ style. One of the biggest surprises is Mr. Ebert’s friendship with and admiration for, director Russ Meyers, he of some rather trashy films that made money. Roger Ebert admired Meyers’s work ethic and wrote one of his movies, certainly surprising to those not aware.

There is a lengthy explanation of his illness, its probable cause, and the failures of multiple surgeries, leaving him unable to eat, drink, or speak.

He ends with meditative thoughts on death and dying, the inevitability of which he accepts and, in ways, welcomes—though, thankfully, not quite yet.