Sunday evening I watched Life Itself alone at home in the comfort of my family room. I wanted to go to the show but didn’t feel like driving, so I found a movie I wanted to see on Comcast. Life Itself chronicles the life of the late, world famous movie critic, our own Roger Ebert.
I am glad I was home and alone because I cried quite a bit as I watched the movie, recalling from personal memory and watching footage of Roger and his wife Chaz going through joyful and difficult passages of their life together.
Chaz and I are beauty shop friends. We catch up on events and life and socialize as we get our hair styled by Mr. Emery, sometimes. The movie gave me a new appreciation and respect for two people who I knew to be very much in love with one another, and whose life I was privileged to peek into.
Life Itself is about Roger Ebert, but it is so much more than a documentary. It is a story about life – life beautiful, life challenged, life hard, life itself. Here are life lessons from the movie.
1. PASSION. Live your passion. Roger loved to write. Writing was easy to him and he was born to it and for it. It was his gift. He was a beautiful writer. His writing was simple and easily understandable no matter how deep he went, elegant, descriptive, critical; sometimes he was even poetic. Roger made you feel, which is the best thing a writer can do. He always wrote his passion, he lived his passion, and he took it to the highest level.
2. NEW BEAT. Roger took on a new beat. Extensive movie reviewing was a fairly new, unknown territory in American mainstream print media when Ebert began doing it for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967. The paper gave the gauntlet to the 25-year-old kid and he took it on. He took his assignment seriously.
Roger did not start out writing about movies. He joined the Sun-Times in 1966 as a general assignment reporter as a way to support himself while he was in the PhD program at the University of Chicago.
When the Sun-Times’ movie critic at the time departed the next year, the job was given to Roger, who not only accepted it, but also left the doctoral program to devote his efforts to film criticism. That is dedication.
Roger took the task and made it his. This is a great lesson for interns and those entering the world of work. Take it and make it your own.
Roger did it so well that he took the art of the movie review to a new height. He became the greatest movie critic in America and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his reviews, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer for criticism. In 2005, Roger became the first film critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and by 2010, his reviews were syndicated in more than 200 papers in America and abroad.
He was an original and one of one. He loved the Chicago Sun-Times, his paper, and when job opportunities came from elsewhere – and many extravagant offers certainly came his way – he stayed put. He stayed with the one who brought him to the party and ignored the money, titles and glaring light.
He loved Chicago, and his byline, voice and column made Hollywood and New York come a-calling. He made Chicago the center of the movie-reviewing universe and taught New York and L.A. a lesson or two. Make your movie wherever you want to, but take it to Chicago for Roger’s review.
3. LOVE. Roger found the love of his life, Chaz, as he was enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous. She, too, the movie explains, had a drinking problem. In a way, their problem was a blessing because they may not have met had they not been in AA. Roger was a playboy who found love late in life. He and Chaz married when he was 50 to live happily every after. He was ready to receive her completely. Sometimes love escapes you at an early age simply because you are not ready for it, but Roger was finally ready for it and he showed it in every way. They were a beautiful couple.
4. CHALLENGES. He met his health challenges head on and with head held high. His wife was by his side at all times. She went through the pain with him. She was his strength, his encouragement. Roger kept a positive attitude. He was always upbeat with his thumbs up.
5. INNOVATION. What I most admired about Roger and Chaz was their improvised innovation. Roger was a newspaperman. He knew the typewriter. He moved to the computer. When he couldn’t use his voice because of his cancer, when he was most challenged, he still produced some of his best work, through a voice apparatus some Hollywood geek created just for him.
He saw the newspaper world change and he changed with it. He adapted. He blogged, he went on the Internet. He created his own site and archived his work. He moved it forward. He was open and receptive to newness and did not succumb to his professional challenge even though he was ill. He conquered and taught others, including a new generation, how to do it by doing it.
6. FRIENDS. His movie-reviewing partner was the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel, who died without his friend Roger realizing that he was ill with a brain tumor. They were cat and mouse as they both grew to TV stardom by taking movie reviews to another level in another medium. Gene and Roger were powerful men who could make or break a movie with thumbs up or thumbs down.
They were complete opposites who often skirmished like alley cats, calling each other rather earthy names sometimes. Often they disagreed about a movie, why it was good or why it wasn’t. They argued on the set. But they kept it interesting and their opinions were always stimulating. Sometimes you went to the movie after hearing or reading their recommendation to judge for yourself and just to see which was right. Roger saw life differently than Gene. Roger would not keep his illness a secret. He lived openly and with transparency.
7. ENCOURAGEMENT. Roger was always encouraging. He had a big personality. He was embracing. You just loved him and wanted to give him a big hug. As a top professional movie man, part of his job was to look at the new, the up and coming. He saw talent as it emerged and he helped to develop it with a positive review, or a note, or an email or a viewing of the movie. He knew talent when he saw it; he knew a star when he saw one and he even made a few because of his positive treatment. He was never too busy or too great to see a new movie, with or without a notable name attached to it.
8. SHARING KNOWLEDGE. Roger taught us what he knew. He could look at movies from an historical vantage point. He loved the classics, he shared his favorites, he saw the emerging, and he talked about the greats. He had an opinion and a unique perspective and he shared it.
9. COLOR BLINDNESS. Without a doubt Chaz, who is African American, was the love of Roger’s life. Her family became his. He was a father and a grandfather to Black children. He did not allow race to enter the equation. His warmth and tenderness was evident. He wore it on his sleeve. It was beautiful.
10. LIVING. Most of all, Roger knew how to have a great time. He lived his life. You knew what he cared about. He shared himself with the world. He was different. He was lovely. He was a life coach.
His movie, which is based on his best-selling memoir of the same name, is indeed, about life itself. And it is a thumb’s up without a doubt.