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Book Notes

December 1, 2011

Book Notes: Ebert biography worth experiencing

Roger Ebert is probably the best known film critic in the country. Back in the 1970s he appeared with fellow Chicago-based critic Gene Siskel in a syndicated television program called Sneak Previews that launched the duo into stardom. Their banter about upcoming movies proved extremely popular and they appeared  everywhere from talk showsto conventions. Their publicist  once told them that they alwayshad to appear together because they were a duo and separately they were nothing. The public constantly referred to them as the “movie guys.”

Ebert and Siskel did Sneak Previews and versions of it for over 20 years. Siskel died of cancer in 1999, but Ebert continued on with Richard Roeper until 2006.

Then he faced his own battle with cancer. He ended up having his lower jaw removed and the surgery structurally altered both his face and life.

He could no longer speak or eat, and his appearance suddenly took on the look of the original Phantom of the Opera.

Ebert’s saving grace was the fact he is a writer. He can still communicate through Internet blogs and write his movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times. He has lived an incredibly full life and retains an almost photographic memory.

This combination led to his writing his recent autobiography, aptly titled Life Itself: A Memoir, and it is truly one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read. And I mean that in a very good way.

Ebert discusses so many different facets of his life it’s hard to know where to begin.

There’s the straight biography of his upbringing, college life, the celebrities he’s encountered, his travelogue of foreign cities and countries, the Chicago beat writers and their favorite haunts, his relationship with Siskel, battling alcoholism, meeting his wife, facing cancer, and his thoughts on romance, religion, and death. At times the book seemed endless yet you never wanted it to end.

Ebert has so many wonderful anecdotes about his life and the people he’s met you are always looking forward to more.

His upbringing in the Midwest was pure Americana. It sounded like life on Happy Days.

Ebert came of age in the 1950s when malt shops, penny loafers, and bobby sox were all the rage. His love of books and intellectual curiosity was aided by the fact he grew up in a college town, Urbana, the home of the University of Illinois.

His entry into journalism began early as he covered high school football for the local paper. He was editor of the Daily Illini, the University of Illinois student newspaper.

He managed to secure a job with the Chicago Tribune after college and one day was suddenly designated the paper’s new film critic. So he literally stumbled into his lifetime profession. As he noted of his good fortune: “I loved getting up from my desk and announcing, ‘I’m going to the movies.’”

Many of the celebrities that Ebert met are highlighted in his memoir including heavyweights such as Robert Mitchum and John Wayne

Ebert must have a naturally engaging personality because celebrities seemed to enjoy having him around no matter what he’d written about them.

Larry King, the long-time CNN talk-show host, once said that Mitchum was his most difficult interview because he would never say anything.

But he was a chatterbox around Ebert perhaps because Ebert didn’t conduct a formal interview. John Wayne was never at a loss for words either. Ebert was able to present both men as very down-to-earth despite their larger-than-life personas.

When writing about his travels there is little doubt that London is Ebert’s favorite foreign destination. He comes back to it again and again and his description of the nooks and crannies of the city are infectious. He even wrote a book called The Perfect London Walk. His stories about exploring the city and his favorite tucked-away little hotel make you long to experience a trip like that yourself.

For pure entertainment Ebert includes a chapter on how he and Gene Siskel would keep each other from taking themselves too seriously. They had a rule that they could not discuss the movies they were reviewing during commercial breaks so they had an ongoing contest of who could get the best dig on the other one. For Ebert the jokes revolved around his weight while with Siskel it was his receding hairline.

The chapter had me laughing out loud. Ebert even said that if Siskel had still been alive when he had his lower jaw removed he probably would have said, “At least (Roger) no longer needs a bookmark to find his chin.”

The most poignant chapter discusses his cancer and how he dealt with it. The surgery to remove the cancer was successful, but that and two subsequent ones to restore his face, speaking, and eating weren’t. He spent a lot of time in hospitals and rehab centers and eventually learned to adapt to his situation. It’s not easy to accept having a face that’s literally a shell of its former self but Ebert has.

His memoir is perhaps the most aptly titled book I’ve ever read. Life Itself covers just about everything under the  sun except the movies he’sreviewed. You can always get his Movie Home Companion for that.

Ebert’s had quite a life and we’re lucky he has taken the time to share it with us. It’s definitely a ride worth experiencing.

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