CNN's "Life Itself" includes surprises about famed film critic Roger Ebert
Friends recall Ebert's early drinking days, including a "hired lady"
Ebert suspected radiation treatments were linked to his terminal cancer
Programming note: Explore more about the fascinating world of the late film critic Roger Ebert in the CNN Film “Life Itself.” Join CNN for an encore presentation Sunday, January 25, at 8 p.m. ET.
As CNN presents an encore of Roger Ebert’s dramatic story “Life Itself,” on Friday at 9 p.m. ET, it may strike you how Oscar-nominated director Steve James sprinkles surprising details about the late movie reviewer’s life throughout the film.
A lot of folks already know that Ebert wrote the screenplay for the 1970 cult classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” They also may remember years ago when he outed himself as a recovering alcoholic. And when Ebert and Gene Siskel launched their TV review show in the 1970s, most people know they didn’t get along at first. “Life Itself,” includes a Siskel-Ebert squabble so snarky it’ll make you squirm with discomfort.
The move reminds us that the fame of someone like Ebert, who lost his battle with cancer in 2013, may fool us into thinking we knew him almost like a friend or a neighbor down the street.
But of course fame has always been good at casting illusions.
“Life Itself” jabs viewers with the realization that there were aspects of Roger we knew nothing about. The private details about Ebert in the film paint a warts-and-all portrait of a man who clearly lived a pretty fulfilling and interesting life.
With that in mind, here are five facts from the film that may take you by surprise:
1. Ebert’s drinking years: The ‘hired lady’
Ebert’s longtime friend, writer William Knack, shares this story in the film: “I met Roger one time with a woman that looked like a young Linda Ronstadt … I said, ‘who is that?’ And he said, ‘she’s a hired lady.’ And I said, ‘a hooker?’ And he said, ‘Now, you take care of her when I leave.’ And he left town.”
2. He suspected his cancer was linked to radiation treatments.
“My disease may have been started by childhood radiation treatments for an ear infection,” said Ebert in the film.
3. Siskel hung out with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s inner circle.
“Gene was more of a — for lack of a better word — an elegant character,” Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen said in the film. “He caught the eye of Hugh Hefner and he was adopted by the clan at the [Playboy] Mansion. And he traveled with Hefner in the Bunny Jet. Even though Roger wrote ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,’ I think Gene lived the life for a while.”
4. Siskel – who died in 1999 – hid his terminal brain cancer from Ebert until his final days.
“He didn’t really want the [TV show producers] at Disney to know how sick he was. … and Roger didn’t know. And that really wounded Roger,” said Ebert’s ex-producer Thea Flaum in the film. “I don’t think it’s that he didn’t trust Roger personally. Nonetheless when something like that happens, you take it personally. How else is there to take it?”
Eventually Ebert learned Siskel was sick. But it was too late. Ebert’s widow Chaz Ebert said the timing was tragic. “I was so sad for Roger for not being able to tell his ‘brother’ goodbye. … We were going to go and visit him that Monday, but he passed away that Saturday.”
5. A chance meeting with Ebert helped inspire a girl to grow up to be a movie director.
When she was 8 or 9, Ava DuVernay’s aunt took her to see a rehearsal for the Oscars in Hollywood. When she spotted Ebert, she recognized him from TV. “I remember saying, ‘Thumbs up! Thumbs up!’ … And he came over. The two posed for a quick snapshot. After DuVernay directed her first film years later, Ebert’s review “really got to the heart of what I was trying to articulate,” she said in the documentary. “The film was about my aunt who took me to the Oscars that day … and about losing someone that you love. Ebert’s review touched me so much that I sent him the picture from the Oscars.” Later, Ebert honored DuVernay’s aunt in a heartfelt blog post. DuVernay went on to direct the 2014 hit film, “Selma.”