The Critic Becomes the Star

“Life Itself,” directed by Steve James
Chaz and Roger Ebert in a still from “Life Itself,” the opening film of the SummerDocs series, screening at Guild Hall on Saturday.

The Hamptons International Film Festival SummerDocs series, hosted by Alec Baldwin at Guild Hall, kicks off Saturday with “Life Itself,” the first film to be made about the life of the late Roger Ebert, a film critic and media personality known for his work at The Chicago Sun-Times and on TV. After the screening, there will be a discussion with Chaz Ebert, Mr. Ebert’s widow.

“Life Itself,” directed by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), is notable because it includes footage of Mr. Ebert from the last few months of his life, giving viewers an intimate look into who he was outside of his public life. The film covers his early life, his beginnings as a journalist at The Daily Illini, his work at The Chicago Sun-Times, and, of course, his relationship with Gene Siskel. Additionally, Mr. Ebert and his wife gave Mr. James their blessing and worked closely with him during the months before Mr. Ebert’s death from cancer, after only a few months of filming.

According to Mr. James, Mr. Ebert “prized films that were honest and presented the world in a complicated way, and he felt the same way about this film. . . . He would want me to be as candid as I can be, but fair. He had a sense of fairness that was very strong.” The result is a film that does not shy away from Mr. Ebert’s personal battles and disease.

He was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and the salivary glands in 2002, and it left him unable to eat, drink, or talk normally. Much of the footage features Mr. Ebert in the hospital, learning how to walk again after fracturing a hip, having his throat suctioned by the nursing staff, or struggling with communication.

Despite his illness, Mr. Ebert managed to continue working. “He was still reviewing movies and taking speaking engagements, he still traveled. He went to the Cannes Film Festival. He still did Ebert Fest. And we loved giving dinner parties,” his wife said. The last blog post on his very popular personal blog was published the day before he died. Mr. James brings to light the fact that cancer may rob someone of his or her ability to speak, but if that person is, like Mr. Ebert, a writer, it does not destroy his ability to communicate and express himself.

The scenes in the hospital are punctuated by stories of Mr. Ebert’s life as a young man and as the leading film critic in America. Though Mr. Ebert’s entire life cannot be put into one film, Mrs. Ebert believes that the parts Mr. James does include are “uproariously hilarious” and genuinely emotional. “People will be quite surprised and pleased because it gives a fuller view of who Roger was,” she said. “Even people who had known him for 30 years learned things. . . . I learned things about Roger that I never knew.”

The film also pays attention to Mr. Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel. The two were the team that formed “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies,” a popular movie review television program. They were good friends, but also rivals who constantly tried to surpass each other. This complex relationship intrigued Mr. James, who wanted to make a movie about Mr. Ebert’s life because, as he said, “He was an interesting, complex individual who had seen good times and bad times, for example, he’s struggled with Gene Siskel a lot.” Behind-the-scenes footage from the show is included in the film, as are quite a few personal moments between the two.

Mrs. Ebert believes that her husband’s life was as interesting as the movies he devoted his career to reviewing. “Roger was a pretty interesting character. He lived a very full life right up to the very end. He always reached for life with both hands. He was so curious about life. He was so smart. He read a lot and traveled a lot and was very generous to people. The parts that did make it into the film make very good adaptations for the screen.”

On Saturday at 8 p.m., moviegoers can decide for themselves if Mr. Ebert would give “Life Itself” two thumbs up. Tickets are $23, and $21 for members, and can be purchased online on Guild Hall’s website. The film will be released in theaters, on demand, and on iTunes on July 4.