“If you could’ve found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would’ve explained everything.”
—“Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz.
INT. VIRGINIA THEATRE, CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS – DAY
Here is one of the most chilling and thrilling sounds I have ever heard in a movie theater, from a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 2012. Everyone in the 1,500 or so seats knew the attraction: a projection of the Blu-ray of “Citizen Kane,” on the big screen, with Roger Ebert’s time-honed commentary playing over the soundtrack. Roger hadn’t spoken since his surgeries of 2006. Heavy red velvet curtains part and the words “An RKO Radio Picture” appear—a radio tower girdling the globe and transmitting worldwide—with the words: “This is Roger Ebert, watching ‘Citizen Kane’ with you.” And Roger was watching “Citizen Kane” with us, from a lounger seat at the back of the auditorium. But it was the simple manifestation of that stilled voice—chummy, smart, ready to entertain and edify, that made the heart jump for just a second. Ebert’s two-hour weave of history and insights rushed forward, a dispatch from a friend long unheard-from. The last words spoken from the screen: “I’m Roger Ebert. I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing ‘Citizen Kane.’” The curtains close, the lights rise, the room rocks with stifled sobs and fills with honest tears.
INT. AT A THEATER NEAR YOU AND ON DEMAND JULY 4 – DAY/NIGHT
Chicago’s own Steve James seems like an inspired choice to capture the competitive, complex years of Roger Ebert’s life, but it took many pitches and, finally, a crowd-funding campaign to get “Life Itself” to the finish line. (Contributors were given the most democratic of perks: an online streaming debut of the film that began at the same time as its premiere at Sundance in January.) Working again with his longtime co-producers, Kartemquin Films, the director of “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” packs seventy years into a swift, swinging two hours, a dense, vivid impression of the Sun-Timesman’s will and destiny to be a newspaperman from the earliest age, but also the many overlapping eras of his eventful (and competitive) life. Editor-in-chief at college, appointed film critic almost by accident at a callow age, the drinking, the rivalry with Gene Siskel, Chaz, the loss of voice alongside the gain of a virtual pulpit, the ornery Midwestern strength in the face of debilitating pain in his final days. There are hundreds of stories to be told and, as has been amply pointed out, at Sundance and elsewhere, hundreds of people have them, their own Roger Ebert story from the late, great everyman’s simple, elemental curiosity. There’s a lot between the covers of Ebert’s fugue-cum-memoir that gives the film its title and some of its territory, but for a movie made in just over a year, it’s a compact feat of determination and legerdemain. “Life Itself” is a proper, not wholly reverent remembrance. The filmmakers have even provided a place of pride for the immortal line Roger wrote in his screenplay for Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”: “This is my happening and it freaks me out!”
INT. CINECENTER SCREENING ROOM – 1980s – DAY AFTER DAY
Aside from a lifetime interest in dirty jokes—a subject sorely missing from the film of “Life Itself”—Roger would sometimes shout a joke at the screen, and it was almost always a perfectly timed and shaped zinger, more for the glory of the joke than for the joker. He wasn’t a heckler: he just couldn’t help but share a good one. I remember four or five or more times he volleyed what must have been a favorite retort: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily!” I also remember the entire screening room cracking up each and every time.
INT. ROGER’S MIND – NIGHT
In his 2011 memoir, “Life Itself,” Roger weaves the story of his life with all the skills gained from a lifetime well and truly spent. In some ways, it’s a curious book, arranged largely in chronological order, but it also fixes on the sort of moments that recur and repeat like memories before falling asleep on a good night.
The prose in the memoir is simple yet finely shaped, especially as chapters run to their final paragraphs. Consider: “After joining AA, I understand alcoholism better and realize that my father was an alcoholic who stopped before I was born, my mother was after he died, and I was from the time I took my first drink. The disease caused deep wounds, driving me into a personal life of evasion, denial and concealment, and keeping me unmarried for an unnatural length of time. Did I know drinking made me unmarriageable, or did I simply put drinking ahead of marriage?”
These are his most refined reflections, but there are also dozens of reviews among his 7,800-plus that he published in his lifetime that I could read and trace how Roger’s prose influenced mine. Mostly, it would be his effortless knack of dropping right into the flow of a story, which may be his least-commented upon gift as a writer. As with that paragraph about his drinking, you’re telling a story, it’s you and me, we’re in a bar or on the street and I have something interesting I want to tell you. No preamble, no major thesis statement, just report your feelings about the movie the way you’d report the progress of a sports game.
Steve James’ career was transformed by Ebert’s earnest praise and unstinting support for his 1994 film, “Hoop Dreams,” and Roger found these simple words, buttonholing us at once, holding us by the lapels, then rising to the sky: “A film like ‘Hoop Dreams’ is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” [Emphasis mine.]
“Life Itself.” Wouldn’t that make a fine title for a book or a film? (The connection between film critic and filmmaker grows ever closer in those two words.) Personally, I’d be partial to any title using one of Roger’s shorter writerly dictums, one I heard him say at least a few times: “Ass. In. Chair.” So: Ass In Chair. Here’s Roger writing of the overflow of books and life’s detritus in his Lincoln Park home: “That’s what I should do. Just turn the key and walk away, and move into 150 square feet. Get me a little electric coil to boil the coffee water. Just my Shakespeare, some Henry James, and of course Willa Cather, Colette, and Simenon. Two hundred books, tops. But no, there wouldn’t be room for Chaz, and I would miss her terribly. That I could never abide.”
The Monday before he died, Roger published a small note online, he was going to take it easy for a bit. He called it a “leave of presence.”
And he left another form of presence: Steve James’ documentary was in production when Roger became ill again in 2013. “Roger didn’t approach me,” James told me last week. “Steven Zaillian and Garrett Basch, Steve’s partner and a producer on the film, read the memoir, and they’re both big doc fans. They then approached Roger through his literary agent to say, we think this would be a great basis for a documentary. Would Roger be interested in that? Roger didn’t commit to it, but he was intrigued. It would depend on who’s going to make it, number one, and Roger wasn’t sure, he made this clear to me when I communicated with him, he wasn’t sure that a documentary was called for.”
Not everyone understood what James was intending to craft at the early stages of financing “Life Itself.” “When I was initially getting involved, and we were pitching it to various networks, to try to get some initial funding, I was amazed that people didn’t get it. Maybe it was my ability to explain it, but we got turned down by a lot of places. They were, eh. It’s just about a film critic. I was—first of all, it’s not just any film critic, and secondly, it’s not just about a film critic. Finally, people did, of course—we made the movie—but it really is an extraordinary life journey. It’s not the classic three-act structure; it’s like a seven-act structure.”
Plus, the book already told the tale in Roger’s own words (as the narration of the documentary does as well). “Yes, he felt good about the memoir,” James says, “and I think on some level, he was with those network people that I tried to pitch. I hadn’t read the memoir when they first approached me. I read it quickly and knew I would love to do it. We were emailing at first and then I met with Roger and Chaz, explaining what I would want to do with this movie and why.”
Roger was pretty assured about his legacy, it doesn’t seem his ego would have required this movie. “I think that was absolutely the case for him. But once he made the decision to do it, he knew the kind of films that he loved, he knew the kind of documentaries that he loved, and what that meant in terms of candor and intimacy and truth. I think it would have gone against his grain to do it any other way. Once he decided to commit to it, he was all in. That meant showing his life and showing a degree of candor with his life in the present that despite his incredible openness, in showing his life to his public since all of the surgeries, this was a different level. And he knew that’s what it would require. He might have, I didn’t ask him, but he might have asked, do I really want to do that? There are different levels of candor. If he didn’t want to be that open, he probably wouldn’t have let a documentary be made.”
EXT. CHICAGO – DAY/NIGHT/DAY/NIGHT
The day Roger passed, I wrote that everything that Roger Ebert was, was a newspaperman, and was because he was a newspaperman. Ink, and then film, and then ink about film. That would include appreciating the movement of careers, the motion of plots, like a sportswriter. That would include the late-night badinage of the ink-stained, as in the many years spent, without regret, at O’Rourke’s and the Old Town Ale House. That would include the competitive urge with The One Across Michigan Avenue, the one called the Chicago Tribune. But also the one called “Gene Siskel.” Plus, words and paper with racy asides and winning wisecracks. (And in later years, wisecracks sketched quickly on a small pad of paper and handed to you.) Television didn’t make Roger Ebert, but in a small, small way, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel made television. And when I was a guest on the show after Siskel’s death, Roger’s key words of advice, in essence, were when you’re on camera, you’re not acting, you’re not performing, it’s not even conversation: “You’re committing television.”
INT. CHANNEL 2 STUDIOS, STREETERVILLE – DAY
Someone uploaded to YouTube the “Siskel & Ebert” show that I and several other Chicago reviewers were on after Gene died in 1999. We talked about Stanley Kubrick and “Eyes Wide Shut.” The show taped for a few hours and overnight the editors somehow filleted together twenty-two or so minutes of Roger holding center frame while we “committed television.” There’s a single cut, slightly mistimed, that is the only reason I ever want to watch the episode again. I make some kind of joke, probably a terrible pun, and almost smirk, and the editor cuts to a medium close-up of Roger, smiling at my bad gag. Better than a thumbs-up any day of the week, any week of any year.
INT. THE EBERT COMPANY, LTD., FINE FILM CRITICISM, SINCE 1967 – DAY
“Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw ‘La Dolce Vita’ in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom ‘the sweet life’ represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3am, the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age. When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.”
INT./EXT. RAY’S OFFICE/STEVE ON STREET IN MANHATTAN – DAY
“I think there’s a lot to chew on in the film. That’s essentially why Roger’s story is so interesting,” James tells me. “Because there was so much to it and so much to the way in which he embraced everything about his life. The good, the bad, the ugly and of course the humorous.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, the cliché was, “Ebert? Which one is he, the skinny or the fat one?” James laughs. “Which drove Ebert crazy, by the way, when anyone said that! He couldn’t bear to have people confuse him with Siskel. It just appalled him that people wouldn’t know, not so much out of vanity, but ‘we’re such different people! How can you not possibly know who I am versus Gene?’”
James’ first exposure to Roger came through one of the earlier versions of the TV show. “I was at SIU, studying film. I tripped across the show one Sunday afternoon, I just remember thinking, this is interesting, what is this exactly? Then at the end of the show, when they revealed, ‘This is Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, Gene Siskel from the Chicago Tribune.’ My first thought was huh, that’s kind of odd. Why two Chicago guys? I attributed it at that point, oh it’s just a local show, it originates out of Chicago so it’s just local. It’s not a national show! Why would there be two Chicago guys doing film criticism? Then I realized there was more to the show and its reach, and I understood why it was so appealing. I really liked it, I really liked the debate. I appreciated just how smart these guys were in talking about movies and doing it in such a distilled fashion, and doing it in a short time span, to cover four or five films in a half hour. When I moved to Chicago to start my career, I started to get the Sun-Times. And I remember the first time I looked at the Friday Sun-Times and the Friday Tribune. And I was struck by how little film criticism Gene was writing. I came to realize later there were more complicated reasons having to do with [Gene’s] relationship to the paper. But I would pick up the Sun-Times and there would be like eight reviews, full-on reviews. All by Roger. And I was amazed at that. I fell into regularly reading him. He became somebody that I read frequently, when Friday rolled around. So when he reviewed ‘Hoop Dreams’ the way that he did—I mean—y’know—I had a history of appreciating his film criticism. So it was all the more amazing to me.”
Roger was proud of being a newspaperman, and his productivity in turning out copy was phenomenal until the end. “I do think Roger approached film reviewing the way he approached being a newspaperman,” James says. “He wrote about film with the kind of curiosity that any newspaperman would have. And then the sparseness of prose, and [practices like] wisely pick your adjectives, but don’t pick too many of them. But, y’know, he did also something else that wasn’t that common in straight-ahead reporting. You know when he got handed this job that nobody really wanted, he decided that since he didn’t really know a lot about movies, other than that he liked them, that he would write the way the movies made him feel. That he was going to write from the vantage point of a guy in a movie theater and this is what he took away, how it made him feel. That kind of goes to the heart of what’s great about movies, even though there are movies that are stimulating on an intellectual level, but being the democratic art form that it is, its greatest appeal has always been emotional. And I think that bound Roger to his readers. He was writing for the everyday film lover, not for the film journals. Even though as the years progressed, he developed into an impressive scholar on movies in his own right. But that never infected his prose as a writer. He always kept that populist personal touch.”
Which might make him an archetypal Chicagoan. And through the TV show, he and Gene were a kind of ambassador to Chicago in all its grand variables. “Roger fell in love with the city. When he was younger, before he made his way to Chicago, he was one of those kind of guys that, frankly, in college, I wouldn’t have liked very much. Very ambitious. He envisioned going to Chicago, check, he did that. Becoming a newspaperman, check, he did that. He did not foresee becoming a critic, he foresaw eventually becoming an op-ed columnist. Then he saw himself eventually moving on to New York; Chicago would be a pit-stop to some degree. He would move on to New York where he would become an acclaimed novelist. That didn’t happen. But I think that that ambition and that creativity was at the heart of why he loved literature and appreciated all kinds of art. But, there’s nothing better than his memoir. I think it’s the height of his writing. That’s why I wanted to use his words in the film, to have him ‘narrate.’”
“Life Itself” mimics the book’s structure to some extent, free-associating on certain subjects that aren’t wholly perched upon a timeline. Roger writes about it in the very beginning of the book, meditating on how memory works. “That absolutely had an influence on how to structure the film,” James says. “I was really taken with this idea that a man is reviewing his memories, and that recollection is a kind of prism. And I loved the way that it’s largely chronological, but not at all exclusively so. The way things are repeated, and returned to. I loved that. So when it came time to think about how this movie would be made, and talking to Roger about it. This film was a delightful experience for me and then with David Simpson to edit, because I didn’t feel bound by chronology. I loved the idea of moving back and forth between the present day of his life, in the hospital and rehab and then going home briefly, and into the past.”
The memoir recounts stories from Roger’s long and eventful life, but the great gift of the movie is how it captures the man’s capacity, even hunger for transformation and reinvention. Sports writer, film critic, teller of jokes, recovering alcoholic, TV personality, internet early adopter and investor, happily married man in middle age, illness, losing his voice but gaining a couple more as a blogger and power-user of Twitter. James laughs. “Madonna was famous for reinventing herself like every, what, four or five years? A kind of new persona. She got ridicule for that, but Roger did it too. Yet it never felt like posturing and posing. It was genuine. Just simply the fact that his writing got him the first Pulitzer for movie reviewing at a very young age was extraordinary. I’m sure it engendered a lot of jealousy on the part of more seasoned film critics at the time. But the fact that he went on television with Gene and then reinvented the whole idea of what a film critic is and what it could do, the power of the film critic. Those two became the first film-critic millionaires! Maybe that’s something that will never happen again. And then to have this cruel joke, cosmic joke, if you will, of being robbed of his ability to eat, which he loved, and to speak, of which there are few that did it better. But that wasn’t the end of him. It was the beginning of a new kind of transformation. And again he reinvented himself, and in the process reinvented film criticism on the web.”
INT. PLITT SCREENING ROOM/CINECENTER SCREENING ROOM/LAKE STREET SCREENING ROOM – DAY AFTER DAY
Roger and Gene would jostle in the screening room, teasing or taunting, and sometimes swearing viciously at each other in the 1980s, 1990s. They were both spirited at public barbs, and there are outtakes from the taping of their show that are like more compact, concentrated versions of the intermittent spite and spittle. It was always a delight to walk into the room and not know what was going on but to discover the two of them barking from across the back row of the small room, Gene calling Roger a “fat fuck” and Roger calling Gene back a “bald dumb fuck.” Those are the nice ones. (And they both excelled at short, sharp “goddammit!”s.) Ain’t love grand? They brought smart criticism to the average viewer, but didn’t leave their rivalry at the screening room door.
The screening room has its rituals. (When the lights go down, every theater in the world is one big “screening room.”) Regulars have their seats and guard them territorially. (And sandwiches. So many sandwiches.) But, although I took it for granted, even as Roger rode out one more, then another health crisis, one of the best rituals was seeing Roger’s friendly face on a several-times-a-week, sometimes even all-day basis for more than twenty years. Sometimes there’d be an exchange. Often just a nod. Screenings were usually at 10am, 1215pm or 230pm, and there were many times I’d be in the door just a moment before the lights dimmed for the lunch-hour show, and I’d have the New York Times quarter-folded under my arm or a brand-new book I’d only just started reading on the El and I’d get a grin and a thumbs-up. Another constant reader! Roger approved. On rare occasions, acknowledging a review I’d written in the issue before or a timely wisecrack, Roger offered the encomium “Very good, old man!” after his British fashion. I couldn’t count how many hours we were in the same room in the darkness. (Certainly more time than I’ve spent with my father in the past two decades.) Or how many laughs, warming laughs and giddy laughs, I heard across the years. Roger had a trickster’s happy laugh. Taken for granted: I was in the flow. See Roger at the advance preview, write, submit my review to my paper, then pick up the Sun-Times on Thursday night to pore over the Friday entertainment section. The movies lit up and the words were put down in real time, movie time, written time.
The screening room was melancholy the day Roger passed. No one knew where to stand, but someone had marked his customary seat, at the back, on the aisle, with an offering. I took a picture. Only one person knew what he had to do: another photographer, who moved a red long-stem rose that had been left, to a prettier, less true place.
Siskel and Ebert understood how to quietly make money at a career no one ever had before. Their arrival was a singular sensation: how many cultural arbiters find the level of success as the subjects of their critiques?
“Gene deserved a lot of credit for understanding that before Roger did,” James says. “The business savvy that Gene had really did help them. Roger credited Gene for that. But despite all that, Roger still, until pretty late in their tenure, felt enough frustration with that relationship with Gene that he really did seriously consider, could I just go it alone without him? Do I really need to do this? The Hollywood idea of that relationship is that they started out disliking each other and then they sort of miraculously come to love each other and respect each other. I think the more truthful take is that they absolutely started out disliking each other; pretty early on, respected each other; because they wouldn’t have been able to do a show with each other without that. And the love was like a rollercoaster. At any time from the beginning of that relationship to the end, there were times they loathed one another and grudgingly maybe even loved one another. But it was never this clean line like it would be in the typical Hollywood movie about a path to enlightenment.
“I talked to three different producers in the film and they all said the same thing,” he continues. “I wish I had made a point of this in the movie, but I didn’t, they all said the same thing, even though it was separate tenures: ‘I saw them go from hate to love,’ but they were all there at different times in the history of the show!”
That sounds exactly like a marriage. “It was a marriage, and in a way, a kind of tumultuous love affair,” he agrees. “It was his most significant professional relationship as a film critic. It was, with the exception of Chaz, it was the most important relationship Roger had.” And of course, there was another relationship, one of the great love affairs, torrid, persistent, unstinting, giving, and that was Roger’s love for the movies.
INT. CHARLES FOSTER KANE’S WAREHOUSE
“No, I don’t think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A missing piece.”
—“Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz