"Life Itself: A Memoir" (Grand Central Publishing), by Roger Ebert: A gentle look back, "Life Itself: A Memoir" is as moving as it is amusing, fresh evidence that Roger Ebert is a writer who happens to love movies, not a movie lover who happens to write.
It's an episodic tale with a huge cast of characters, kind of like a Robert Altman movie with Ebert at the center, and sometimes on the edges, but taking it all in. He balances Everyman tales of growing up in postwar Middle America with moments from a singular life.
An only child in a working-class Catholic home in Urbana, Ill., Ebert began writing as a kid. He was a teenage reporter, a college journalist and then a local reporter before joining the Chicago Sun-Times. One day in 1967 he was told he was the paper's new movie critic. Eight years later he was the first film writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
Ebert and critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune turned their love-hate relationship into gold with their TV shows critiquing films. The relationship with Siskel may be the most complicated of his life. (One observer told them: "You guys have a sibling rivalry. Your problem is, you both think you're the older brother.") Ebert maintains that the hate was meaningless and the love deep.
Ebert cares about lots of things besides movies — books, for example, the 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk, and a special walk through the streets and parks of London. Deciding whether he would prefer to spend eternity in a chair at his secret spot in Venice or at the counter of any Steak 'n Shake might be a close call.
The movie figures he sketches — Robert Mitchum, Martin Scorsese and Ingmar Bergman are among them — leave the lightest impression in the book. Instead, people like Ebert's father (an electrician who wanted more than a blue-collar life for his son), newspaper pals Bob Zonka and John McHugh, Ebert's wife, Chaz, and an endearing gadfly at the Cannes Film Festival are the breakout stars of what Ebert calls "the movie of my life."
A cold shadow falls across the warm memories, cast by the illness that in 2006 robbed him of his voice and his ability to eat and drink. It appears not as rage against fate but as a shrugging acceptance of what is — and a mild lament over what can never be again.
A realist wrapped inside a romantic, Ebert doesn't need a George Bailey moment to know that, all in all, it's been a wonderful life.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).