Mark Mikula's Reviews > Life Itself

Life Itself by Roger Ebert
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May 10, 12

bookshelves: read-in-2012
Read from May 02 to 10, 2012

I'd give this 3.5 stars if it were possible ... but I rounded up.

This memoir made me happier for Roger Ebert. I grew up on his reviews and, generally, favored his more casual, less academic takes on different films as presented on the review shows on PBS and in syndication with fellow critic Gene Siskel. At least that's the way I saw him in comparison with the seemingly more bookish Siskel growing up. Given Ebert's significant health issues over the last few years, I was glad to discover that despite the hardships, Ebert is still primarily optimistic and comfortable.

Ebert is candid about a few areas of his life that other celebrities might be more reticent about (alcoholism, his weight, challenges with relationships). He comes across as very likeable and humble and honest--especially about his interactions with the general public now that he self-describes himself as a version of the Phantom of the Opera given his various surgeries for cancer and attempts at reconstruction.

Of the fifty or so chapters in the memoir, there were a few that I felt were less successful than others. He devotes specific chapters to film icons. The anecdotes about his relationship with Robert Mitchum just sort of washed over me, but this is more about my lack of familiarity with Mitchum than it is about his inclusion of them. You'll likely have your own favorites among the chapters that focus on specific figures. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on John Wayne, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese.

Ebert's love life timeline up until the time that he met his current wife seems long. The mentioning of all of his extended connections with family and friends seems motivated by giving everyone a cameo in his life story. His relationship with Chaz, though, gets the attention it merits and is a highlight of the autobiography.

The strength of his memoir for me is in the early parts where he is describing a generally idyllic childhood in a comfortable close-knit community. I also enjoyed very much his descriptions of his travels and the loyalty that he has to particular places and people in his life. I liked hearing about his evolution on becoming more political and differently religious as he matures.

I also liked that the autobiography, rather than being strictly chronological, allowed the different subjects of the chapters to serve as the primary organizing principle of the text. If he is covering his appearances on talk shows over the years, he isolates those experiences into a single chapter and covers them chronologically within that chapter.

Lastly, I'll add that Ebert is a talented writer and has successfully made the transition to social media. He expresses his good fortune in having a continued career despite his current physical limitations. There is very little about specific films here. He has more than adequately covered those in other books, so if you're in the mood to hear more about the life of one of the key figures in popularizing film criticism, then I'd recommend Life Itself.
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