Of course, Life Itself is not purely about movies, just as Ebert himself is not. He writes about his alcoholism (“Without hangovers, it is possible that I would still be drinking. I would also probably be unemployed, unmarried, and probably dead”), and the thirty-plus years he has gone without a drink. He talks about his travels, particularly his many trips to London, where he obsessively returns to his favorite spots (“I may appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but these rituals are important to me”). He writes of his love of books, of being a “toiletries fetishist,” and of his primary point of common interest with “nudie cutie” director Russ Meyer (“Ever since I became aware of them, which was undoubtedly long before I can remember, I’ve considered full and pendulous breasts the most appealing visual of the human anatomy”).
And he writes at length of his politics, which are firmly liberal — as his readers and Twitter followers are well aware. This wasn’t always the case. Back in 1996, when a reader wrote to his “Movie Answer Man” column about Michael Medved’s accusation that Siskel and Ebert were “self-conscious political liberals,” Ebert replied: “There is nothing wrong with a critic having political views — indeed, it is impossible to imagine an intelligent person without them — but the views should not blind him to good filmmaking.” This was a firm, fair response. But it was also a measured one: Ebert stopped short of declaring his own political affiliation, liberal or otherwise.
This has, to put it mildly, changed in recent years. He frequently takes on right-wing talkers, Republican politicians, and Tea Party rhetoric on Twitter and in his blog posts; his political positions even pop up occasionally in his reviews. “My reviews, and all good reviews, are subjective,” he told me. “I am a liberal. Why should I pretend otherwise? When politics are relevant to a film, I’m not going to dodge that.”
But the scope of his writing, and the unfussy manner with which he regards his non-cinematic viewpoints, is a comparatively recent development; these days, he isn’t asking for anyone’s approval or permission to speak his mind. The new way he approaches his work, both in the evolution of his voice and his engagement with his readers, times out quite closely to his brush with cancer. To dismiss this as coincidence would be foolish. A close reading of the work before and after his illness suggests that Ebert simply decided that he had nothing to hide. Having stared down the barrel of his own mortality, he was thankful to still be writing — and he’ll write whatever he likes, thank you very much.
And so we have, in those forums and in Life Itself, a public figure that has let his guard down. He writes of his late TV partner Gene Siskel with affection and honesty. He writes about Chaz with a warmth and sweetness that is utterly disarming, particularly since she was most often referred to in his reviews (before ’06, anyway) as, simply, “my date.” And he writes, with great candor, about his strained relationship with his strict Catholic mother late in her life. “It shows a sad emotional obstruction,” he admits of the secrets he kept from her. “I am writing about it here because I’ll write these memoirs once, and if I were to suppress such an embarrassing area there would be no point in writing them at all.” The raw emotional truth of that line is stunning. I pressed Ebert about it, asking if it was a struggle to decide just how personal and confessional to get in the book.
“I was compelled to tell the truth,” he replied. “I didn’t want to bullshit readers with a sugar-coated alternative history. It’s that simple.”
And so it is. Ebert has often noted that he keeps the famous epigraph of Robert Warshow at his desk: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” When Ebert went under the knife, and battled a sickness that nearly took his life, “the critic” and “the man” became inextricably fused. His life was changed. So was his writing. In Life Itself, Ebert talks about his college years, when he juggled newspaper editing, fraternity life, liberal politics, and complicated romances. “Not many people ever saw me whole,” he writes. It seems that now, between the memoir, the blog, Twitter, and his reviews, that more people are seeing Roger Ebert “whole” — his personal life, his politics, his passions. I asked if this was an accurate assessment.
“I hope it is,” he told me. “I now only have one version. I’m happy that I didn’t write a memoir until I figured out what it was. Strange, for example, how deeply embedded my Catholicism became. I haven’t been a Catholic ‘in the eyes of the church’ since the 1960s. All supernatural belief systems now seem equally preposterous to me. If there are areas of existence I do not understand, I am more comfortable in simply admitting that, instead of buying into superstitions. Yet I believe my social conscience and my liberalism were founded on the teachings of Jesus. So there you have it.”
“Clip it out,” Ebert wrote in 1992, of the Warshow quote. “Stick it where you can see it. It’s not only about the movies.”