Book review: “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert

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Book review: “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert’s “Life Itself” is a newspaperman’s memoir, which is to say it’s breezy, fact-filled and rather light on emotions.

That makes sense, of course. For all his fame as a movie critic on TV, Ebert’s vocation, from his childhood, has been to be a newspaperman.

As he explains in this book, Ebert ended up as a movie critic at the Chicago Sun-Times on an editor’s whim. He’s filled that role very well, producing literate, thoughtful and thought-provoking reviews. And, in that job, he’s remained a newspaperman, rooted in the journalistic style of fast and facile writing — and then onto the next movie.

“Life Itself” is an unusual effort for Ebert inasmuch as his other books have all been compilations of one sort or another — movies, mainly, but also recipes (“The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker” [2010]) and walking routes (“The Perfect London Walk” with Daniel Curley [1986]). Even his one novel, “Behind the Phantom’s Mask,” was initially a newspaper serial.

True, his long-form journalism, such as his Esquire pieces on Lee Marvin, were of a different sort. In these, Ebert often took the fly-on-the-wall approach, producing stories that seemed to recount whatever happened in the hour or day that he’d spent with his subject.

The spotlight was hard and direct on, say, Marvin, and Ebert seemed to be simply on the edges of the account. (As Ebert notes, and as anyone who has written similar pieces knows, the apparent randomness of such features is the result of a lot of real writing, editing and framing that Ebert would do. It wasn’t as artless as it seemed.)

Those pieces worked so well because the subject was someone well-known who was doing and saying interesting, unscripted stuff.

In writing his memoirs, Ebert doesn’t have that luxury of distance. (Well, I guess he could have written it in the third person, as Gertrude Stein did in her memoir.)

He’s set out to tell the story of his life in 415 pages. About a quarter of those pages are taken up with his memories of famous people he’s known, including John Wayne, Martin Scorsese, Russ Meyer and Studs Terkel.

These sorts of memories are the staples of the memoirs of most newspaper writers. A retired reporter tends to realize that the reading public has little interest in his or her own life, but enjoys being told about Famous People I Have Known. That’s what Ebert does in these chapters, and they read like rehashed interviews/features, albeit pleasantly written.

Of course, through his various TV shows, Ebert himself is a Famous Person so the other three-quarters of his book is taken up with his account of how he got to be Roger Ebert and what he’s done as Roger Ebert and who else, beyond other Famous People, he’s known.

This is somewhat unsatisfying.

As a newspaperman and as a critic, Ebert’s bread and butter has been facts. Even his opinions as a critic have had to be tied to facts, i.e., the movie under review and all its disparate elements.

So, here, he piles on facts — facts about his childhood in Urbana, about his extended family, about his dogs, about being brought up as a Roman Catholic, about his time in high school, about his years in college, about his walks around London, about all the stuff he likes to buy in London, about his alcoholism, about his attendance at AA meetings, about being on talk shows, about having a hit TV show, about his romances and sexual history and about the illnesses and surgeries that have left him unable to speak, eat or drink.

Consider this paragraph from page 125 in a chapter titled “Eyrie Mansion,” about a London hotel that Ebert loved:

Around the corner from Jermyn on St. James’s is D.R. Harris, the chemist, the oldest chemist in London, by appointment to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. Miss Brown has been there for years, and I have always wanted to ask her for tea. There I buy a pot of their Arlington shaving cream, Wilberg’s Pine Bath Essence, Eucryl Freshmint Toothpower, and a transparent bar of Pears soap. I remain suspicious of D.R. Harris’s famous Pick-Me-Up, an elixir still prepared from the 1850 recipe.

That paragraph tells us what Ebert likes, but not much about him, the guy who uses all these fancy toiletries.

Newspapermen such as Ebert aren’t used to looking at themselves, certainly not at their souls. Ebert shies away from anything like that, even while confessing his flaws and foibles.

There is much in “Life Itself” about Ebert’s likes and dislikes, e.g., how he likes to travel, whom he likes and has liked as friends, why he dislikes the Catholic Church and fellow reviewer John Simon.

He tells the reader a lot about his opinions. Not a surprise, given that he’s a critic. Yet, those opinions don’t tell much about the guy who holds them.

Much of this book is heady. It’s coming from Ebert’s mind. He tells the reader what he thinks but doesn’t communicate how he feels. Even in the most personal chapters about his alcoholism, his romances, his love for his wife Chaz, his illnesses and his closeness to death, Ebert is telling, telling, telling.

There’s nothing from his gut.

In “Life Itself,” Ebert doesn’t show what it’s been like to be him.

He doesn’t describe, for instance, being an alcoholic. He might have shown us what it was like for him to go through a night of drinking at O’Rourke’s tavern, the taste of the booze, the smell of the air, the sound in the room, the euphoria he felt. And how it felt to be him on the next morning.

But Ebert doesn’t let the reader inside enough to have a sense of what it felt like in those moments.

Or, after the death of the most important of his many father figures, Bob Zonka. How did it feel for him to lose someone so significant in his life? And to be the one who found him dead in his kitchen?

Here’s something else relating to Zonka and his death:

Ebert writes, “I often met his children, Lark, Marco, and Laura (“Package”), at his apartment on Belmont in Chicago, and after his death had a brief but heartfelt romance with Lark, which was founded at least in part by our sadness.”

What? Ebert’s father figure dies, so he ends up having an affair, however brief, with the guy’s daughter.

What were his feelings?

Newspapermen don’t write about their feelings.

Patrick T. Reardon
10.11.11

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