Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz were so linked, in my mind, that it’s impossible for me to think of one without the other. Once people see Steve James’ moving documentary Life Itself, which opens theatrically on Friday, they will surely understand why. Following a screening at USC this past Friday, I moderated a q&a session with Chaz and asked her what surprised her most about people’s reaction to the film thus far. Her answer: that audiences are so moved by their love story.
During Roger’s lifetime, he and Chaz tried to keep their family life private. Anyone who encountered the couple at film festivals could see how they cared for each other—all the more so after Roger became ill. But in this surprisingly wide-ranging documentary, people will see how devoted Roger was, not only to Chaz but to the family he inherited when he married her. Home movies of their travels, and his interaction with his devoted children and grandchildren, reveal a side of Ebert that outsiders didn’t see.
I never got to know Roger well, largely because he was based in Chicago and I was in Los Angeles. We enjoyed chatting when we’d run into each other at industry events and the annual Telluride Film Festival. But my wife Alice and I noticed a palpable change in him when he married Chaz, the brilliant and compassionate woman who became his soul mate. She was more than a partner: she was his Rock of Gibraltar.
Members of the audience at USC asked about their relationship and Chaz replied that, despite surface appearances, they were more alike than unalike. The only time she recalled a differing point of view based on race came when the O.J. Simpson verdict was delivered in 1994. Roger didn’t understand why black people cheered at the news, and Chaz explained that it was a reaction to years of injustice, not merely one high-profile case. He said he hadn’t considered that.
When I first screened the film at the Sundance Film Festival in January, I had a highly emotional reaction, as my wife did the other night. Anyone who has gone through a difficult illness, or cared for someone who was dying, will certainly relate. What makes Life Itself so impressive is the way Roger and Chaz opened themselves up to filmmaker Steve James during Roger’s penultimate hospital stay in Chicago and its aftermath.
I told Chaz that I found it both brave and risky for her and Roger to expose themselves as they did, but she made light of that. They knew that James (who made his name with Hoop Dreams twenty years ago) believes all of his documentaries to be collaborative projects, and would never include anything that his subjects found objectionable.
Yet this is no puff piece: the film paints a fascinating and rounded portrait of Ebert (and, of course, his longtime partner Gene Siskel), warts and all. I’ll tell you more when I post my official review of the film later this week. For now, suffice it to say that Life Itself is more than the biography of a film critic: it is a story of talent, perseverance, luck, serendipity, sadness, and—yes—love.