Cancer may have taken away Roger Ebert’s ability to speak, but as his new memoir proves, his voice remains irrepressible.In his new book, Life Itself: A Memoir (Grand Central Publishing, $30), film critic Roger Ebert makes it clear what has earned his signature thumbs-up and thumbs-down over the years. Thumbs up to Martin Scorsese, London, Steak ’n Shake and his hometown of Urbana, Ill. Thumbs down to filmmakers more interested in making the Great Weekend Hit than the Great American Film — and to the cancer that took Ebert’s ability to eat, drink and speak.
Fortunately, Ebert has not lost the editorial voice that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism. Life Itself evolved from the highly popular blog he started after his own dramatic third act reached its climax in 2008. As Ebert, now 69, reached out to fans online — and they responded in kind — he expanded his commentaries beyond life on-screen to just plain, well, life itself.
“I’ve always received letters from readers, but with the blog I started to receive dozens or even hundreds of messages a day — a kind of personal feedback I’d never before experienced,” Ebert said in an email interview.
The blog unleashed a flood of memories that courses through the memoir — and sometimes flows in directions that readers might not expect. In the book, Ebert revisits the blacks-only theater in apartheid South Africa where he saw To Russia with Love during a Rotary fellowship. He weaves his way through the smoky din of the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom. And he returns to the Arizona desert where he wrote the screenplay for director Russ Meyer’s racy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Though that screenwriting credit isn’t what earned Ebert his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it may end up landing him — or at least a version of him — on the big screen, as rumors circulate about a possible biopic from Meyer. And whom would Ebert cast to play himself on-screen? Let’s just say that Philip Seymour Hoffman gets an Ebert thumbs-up.
Ebert gets our thumbs-up, too, for a memoir that’s at turns poignant and frank — and always engaging.