By Ryan Gowland
Not every film critic is going to get a movie based on their life story, but not every film critic has the renown of Roger Ebert, whose 2011 memoir Life Itself has been optioned to become a documentary from “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” director Steve James and executive producers Steven Zaillian (“American Gangster” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” scribe) and some guy named Martin Scorsese.
“This dropped out of the blue,” explained Ebert. “They say they have a good idea for an approach. I believe Steve James’ ’Hoop Dreams’ is one of the greatest documentaries ever made, and my hopes for this are so high. I never thought of my book as a doc. I’m keeping hands off any involvement, such as with the screenplay, because I don’t want to be a third wheel. Whatever they do I will be fascinated.”
Ebert began his career as a writer working for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, around the time that his first book, Illini Century: One Hundred Years of Campus Life, was published. A few years later, Ebert would co-write the screenplay for director Russ Meyers’ 1970 cult film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and would later go on to pair with fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel on the locally-produced TV show Sneak Previews in 1975. The show brought the “thumbs up, thumbs down” method of movie reviewing to the public when the show was picked up by PBS three years later and eventually became the nationally syndicated Siskel & Ebert & the Movies in the 80s. Ebert continued with the show following both Siskel’s passing in 1999, and after Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2006. Ebert continued to work through his illness, which ultimately resulted in the removal of a section of jawbone and Ebert losing the ability to speak, eat or drink.
Through it all, Ebert has continued to work as a critic, commenting in Life Itself that “I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do.” It wouldn’t be surprising that that’s the ending note that James will try to stick, but there will be plenty to explore along the way, including Ebert and Meyers’ ill-fated Sex Pistols movie and his relationship with other filmmakers and, particularly, Siskel. Should make for a fascinating documentary, though when James will start on the project is unknown at this time.