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Andrea Langworthy's column: Thumbs up for a life well lived

When film critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert died last year, I was inspired to learn more about him. I promptly ordered his memoir, “Life Itself.” Unfortunately, life, or something, got in the way. I still haven’t read the book but last Sunday my husband and I watched a documentary film about Ebert.

Also titled “Life Itself,” it begins with a shot of the Chicago Theater’s marquee, moves on to a black-and-white photo montage of his life and then to a hospital room where filmmaker Steve James interviews Ebert, who lost his ability to speak after his lower jaw was removed because of cancer.

He types his answers on a computer which is equipped with technology that is able to “speak” for him. While the voice has no inflection, it was soon apparent from his responses that Ebert’s feistiness and sense of humor were still intact.

The movie is a mix of Ebert’s childhood, college years and his time as a writer for the Chicago Sun Times. His 46 years as a film critic for the paper, hard-drinking nights before he became sober and then, of course, the 31 years he spent giving movies the famous thumbs up or thumbs down on television.

I tried not to miss the show he did with Gene Siskel. Until I saw “Life Itself,” though, I had no idea the two hosts bristled each other to the degree they did. An interview with Siskel’s widow and clips of her husband and Ebert insulting each other as they shoot a commercial for the show are proof neither man would have rated the other favorably.

The movie is a documentary but I would call it a love story, too. Partly because of Ebert’s love of movies but mostly, because of Chaz, the woman Ebert fell in love with when he was 50 years old. It was the first marriage for Ebert who (I have read) didn’t marry until his mother was gone because he feared his mom would never approve of whomever he chose.

Chaz, a trial attorney, gave Ebert the wedding gift of a ready-made family. Throughout the film, she is Ebert’s ever-present companion. Laughing in the background, encouraging her husband, fretting because he signed a “do not resuscitate” order.

The day James began interviewing him, Ebert was experiencing pain in his hip. More cancer. Five months later, he died. Two days before, he wrote on his blog, “I’ll see you at the movies.”

Towards the beginning of the film, there is another quote, one from his memoir: “I was born inside the movie of my life. I don’t remember how I got into the movie but it continues to entertain me.” May we all be so fortunate.

To learn more about Ebert, check out his blog at, his TED talk, his books, including a cookbook. And do yourself a favor: Watch the extraordinary film, “Life Itself.”