The author of 21 other books, Roger Ebert has finally written a memoir about his personal life, touching only tangentially on his career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and TV personality. That’s risky business, since many readers will expect Hollywood anecdotes in a 415-page book written by someone who saw an early draft of Mean Streets, made movies with Russ Meyer, visited the set of Ingmar Bergman films, bought Quentin Tarantino a chicken sandwich at Cannes, drank with Robert Mitchum in Ireland and went on a pseudo date with Oprah. The memoir is a much more thoughtful reflection on Ebert’s trajectory from a sports reporter in Urbana, Ill., to the living rooms of America.
“I was born inside the movie of my life” is the opening line. Thankfully, he soon drops this conceit and tells an uncontrived tale about his family, his hard-living mentors and his alcoholism. He examines his uneasy relationship with his mother, Catholicism, his weight and his late co-host Gene Siskel. (They were strangers thrown together by a PBS producer. Originally, each thought the other was redundant.) When he does reminisce about showbiz, it’s to record his awe for freewheeling legends like Mitchum, Lee Marvin and John Wayne.
Ebert has had time to think about the Big Questions—God, death, love—while recovering from thyroid cancer treatments that left him unable to talk or eat. Bergman films and Cormac McCarthy’s book Suttree gave him cheer because he “had no use for happy characters. What did they know?” Without a hint of self-pity, Ebert describes what it’s like for an articulate man to have no voice, aside from a computer generated stand-in. What has been his saviour, aside from his selfless wife, Chaz? His blog, where he still follows his winning film-review formula: “Focus on what you saw and how it affected you. Don’t fake it.” Ebert took the same approach to writing this memoir, and the unflinching honesty sent this reader to the library for his other books.