In Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, he dedicates an entire chapter to his love of Steak ‘n Shake.
“If I were on death row, my last meal would be from Steak ‘n Shake,” he explains. “If I were to take President Obama and his family to dinner and the choice was up to me, it would be Steak ‘n Shake.”
He continues in this way for some time, explaining the rules behind only ordering from the original menu, of the magic of a real milk shake, of late night trips to the one in Urbana, and he even offers a smutty joke about how those in the Midwest who eat Steak ‘n Shake have sex compared to those out West and frequent In ‘n Out Burger. Maybe you can guess how it goes.
Ebert devotes as many pages in his book to this burger joint as he does to Werner Herzog. It’s a hilarious and even insightful passage that doesn’t have a thing to do with movies or with Gene Siskel or with journalism. For others to read this and enjoy it illuminates just how deeply people care about Ebert the man, not just the critic.
In his documentary on the life of Ebert, Director Steve James chose to omit this particular anecdote, but he above all recognizes that this movie is not just about film critic Roger Ebert but about the things that he loved, the people that he touched and the people who knew him best. It only uses the book as a loose framework and captures the poignant and emotional moments of Ebert in the painful last few moments of his life.
When Gene Siskel was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given a year to live, he declined to tell anyone beyond his wife and mother. His kids didn’t know, his employers didn’t know, and neither did Roger. And when he quietly passed away, Roger was deeply hurt.
So in 2006 when Roger developed his own health problems, he said he didn’t want to fade away in the same way as Gene. In Life Itself we get images of a bed-ridden Ebert being suctioned from his throat, a disturbing image we’re unsure why James felt necessary to choose until it is revealed that Roger himself requested it.
He wanted his life to be on display, because like the journalist he was, he wanted to tell a better story. The documentary drifts between oral histories of his work with Russ Meyer on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to his days at the Daily Illini to his often uncomfortable and complicated relationship with Siskel and to his stories late in his life.
All of these are things Ebert acolytes and those who have read Life Itself may be readily familiar with, but this film is supposed to be very open. We may know the story, but we recognize this is the best way to tell it.
James gets this, and he even includes an anecdote of how Ebert requested that his newspaper buddy friend Bill Nack recite the last page of The Great Gatsby over and over again. These stories live on in Ebert’s legacy and beg to be told to those who knew him well and those just discovering the man behind the thumbs.
But those thumbs are as much a part of this film as the melodrama, and movie buffs will not leave disappointed. James digs into the nuance of Siskel and Ebert’s power versus their popularity, explaining how their TV stardom often led to contention at the hands of other print film critics like Richard Corliss and Pauline Kael.
He also ties it to Ebert’s competitive and even caustic behavior when dealing with Siskel and others. “He is a nice guy, but he’s not that nice,” one friend proclaims about Roger.
But even beyond the movies, Ebert championed filmmakers and people first. We see stories behind how he helped to make the careers of Errol Morris and Ramin Bahrani. He deeply loved Chaz and his family, and to see some of the screen time devoted to his grandkids make for some of the most touching moments in the film.
James is the director behind Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters and is also one of the notable filmmakers whose career was in part established thanks to Siskel and Ebert. But James is also a Chicago staple, and he makes the ideal choice to capture the Chicago touch Ebert embodied. He gets that Chicago was home to him, and he understands that a film about Roger Ebert needs to be about more than a Wikipedia entry of his legacy. He edits together stories and figures in Roger’s life smoothly and simply, just as Ebert penned his reviews.
Life Itself is the perfect tribute to Roger’s memory because it doesn’t just fawn over him but it feels as though it is him. It’s warm, loving and funny but also deep, critical and flawed. It’s hard to say if Ebert would’ve loved this movie, but he would have known it all too well.