A sense of joyful desperation springs from each page of Roger Ebert's wondrously detailed memoir Life Itself. Joyful because at age 69 the most famous film critic of his era has lived long and well. Desperate because that abundant life is obviously fading to black and Ebert must share it before the end credits that will be his funeral.
Writing is now Ebert's only means of accomplishing this; a prolonged struggle with thyroid and jaw cancer has left him unable to speak. With a portion of his lower jaw removed, he uses a prosthetic chin for rare and rarer public appearances.
But Ebert doesn't want pity, only your attention, and this book proves he deserves it.
Life Itself isn't merely an exercise in name-dropping, although there are certainly plenty of celebrities in Ebert's orbit. Entire chapters are devoted to relationships or significant brushes with enough famous filmmakers and actors to overfill a cineast's bucket list, John Wayne, Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and Werner Herzog among them. And, of course, the late Gene Siskel, Ebert's partner in thumbs in defining a new era of film criticism.
The chapter devoted to sexploitation director Russ Meyer, who tapped Ebert to write the screenplay for his cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, is nearly worth the book's price tag. Ebert reveals someone more complex than the pervy filmmaker Meyer was widely pegged to be: a vital veteran of the U.S. Army Signal Corps who brought the same sense of determination and camaraderie to his sexy circus of starlets. Meyer was a man of dignity and grace who on his deathbed, stricken with dementia, would also complain that an attending nurse wasn't physically endowed to his taste.
Equally fascinating are those characters in Ebert's personal history whom readers aren't likely to know. My favorite of these is an amiably lecherous high roller at the Cannes Film Festival named Billy "Silver Dollar" Baxter, whose mangling of famous names and flaunting of wealth and influence ("Take care of Francis Ford Chrysler over there!") would make a terrific movie.
With remarkable candor and power of recollection, Ebert details growing up naive in Urbana, Ill., raised by alcoholics who passed along that trait to their son. Later he recounts struggling with addiction to drink, from garrulous late nights and early mornings in O'Rourke's pub, knocking back scotch and vodka with the likes of iconic columnists Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, a legend getting his own chapter later. Before that, Ebert dives into redemption through Alcoholics Anonymous after years of denial and dodging offers of help.
Even more important to Ebert's flourishing and survival is his exquisite love affair with his wife, Chaz, whose African-American family's embrace is a model of racial acceptance. Everyone would want someone like her by his side, prodding, coddling and stalwart in her support through these later, infirm years. When Chaz isn't mentioned by name she's still hovering, guardian angel style, in the background. It is, as 1940s movie trailers would exclaim, a love story for the ages.
The striking quality of Life Itself is Ebert's astonishing recollection of the tiniest details that should fade with age and health issues. Only rarely does he admit that he doesn't remember what happened or who was there. Chapter 1, in fact, is titled Memory, in which he marvels at how much information is still locked away. This may be related to a later chapter, The Interviewer, in which Ebert credits his ability to patiently observe and record, rather than posing planned questions.
Whatever it is, it works, then and now. There aren't enough thumbs to aim skyward in recommending this book.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.