Before the screening began at last night’s Hollywood premiere of director Steve James’ Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, Ebert’s remarkable wife Chaz shared something with the packed crowd of industry notables that her late husband told her as they were embarking on the shooting of the film. “Roger said, ‘Make sure Steve doesn’t make a movie I don’t want to see’,” she laughed. Mission accomplished, but in a cruel stroke of irony for the world’s most famous film critic, he didn’t live to see it completed.
James, best known for his 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, has made a tough, entertaining, unsentimental and enormously moving film that everyone should want to see. It’s not just about a blue-collar kid from Chicago, who turned into a Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic. It’s mostly an unflinching and unapologetic account of a man determined to keep on keepin’ on after devastating cancer robbed him of his speech and ability to eat but not his mind, his love for movies or, most of all, his love for Chaz, his wife of 20 years who stood by him and kept him going long after others would have given up. “Roger lived his life out loud, even when he lost his physical voice,” she said. Of the movie, which is brutally honest about his illness and never looks away, my wife said, “It’s the greatest love story I have ever seen”. It is that too. Just before rolling the film, Chaz noted that she had an empty chair in the front row at the Arclight that said simply, ‘Reserved for Roger’ because “he told me I’ll always be in the front row cheering you on”.
Magnolia will release the film next week, and though the Academy’s documentary branch often ignores movies about the movies, this one is irresistible. Wouldn’t it be ironic if a movie about a film critic who wrote books called I Hated Hated HATED This Movie and Your Movie Sucks (among many others more positive to the medium) were to win an Oscar? I spotted plenty of Academy voters in the audience last night, including Acad President Cheryl Boone Isaacs.