I had to watch certain scenes of Life Itself (2014) through my picket fence. With my middle and ring fingers touching my forehead and my pinky and index finger on either eyebrow, my hand defensively fences off sections of the television screen when the subject matter makes me squeamish, unconformable, or giddy with anticipation because the call is coming from inside the house. It was during Life Itself’s first close-up shots of Roger Ebert after his many surgeries due to thyroid cancer that my fence flourished, each picket moving closer and closer together. But as I brushed up on Ebert’s early days – a day job of editing followed by nights of drinking, and eventually a career arguing about film with a competitor – my fence began to lower, and the squirming dwindled into the occasional shift. Despite the physical and emotional challenges of Ebert’s later years, to me this man truly lived the dream. Roger Ebert and Lupita Nyong’o who, as she coasted towards the stage to accept an Academy Award, got to hug Liza Minnelli. Yup, those two. THE dream.
Amongst all of the old footage and photos peppering Life Itself, one in particular catapulted out of my screen with the moxie of Captain EO. If truly a candid shot, this image provides us with the tiniest snapshot of a glimpse into the process of a meticulous man, a superior artist who treasured not only the world of film but also the art of writing itself. The iconic image of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch (1955) – likely the first to appear in the minds and loins of most when her name is mentioned – towers above Ebert’s computer screen, protected not by one but two Donald Ducks. While Marilyn forever belongs to everyone and no one, a certain level of ownership radiates from this photo, as if Ebert both controls and manipulates the winds of the New York subways at will, that dress floating up for him and him alone. This particular Monroe was his exclusively, or so she would have him believe . . . in the end we all belonged to her.
I have a Monroe of my own who watches over me while I write and edit and rewrite and pace and curse at my apartment walls. A bully of a muse, at times she both possesses and withholds all inspiration, as she teases and challenges and taunts me through the process, daring me to try something new. During moments of peak frustration when the Well of Creativity runs dry, I bark at her a bit, likely frightening the neighbors with my booming “WHAT? Whatcha lookin’ at?” But my tantrums tire me out eventually, and I realize I can’t spend the entire night blaming a portrait . . . a few hours more, yes, but not the entire night. Yes, my Marilyn denies me winks and smiles, and she never whoopsy-daisily shows me her undergarments, but she can pressure me to get back to work with the commanding force of a drill sergeant.
I grinned to no one when I noticed that, after a few hours of scratching down my thoughts on Roger Ebert, the words on my page sprinted with gusto back to Marilyn Monroe. I began to wonder how he would react to such a phenomenon; the idealist in me believes that he would have appreciated such an unsuppressed shift in focus, while the jealous writer on my other shoulder assumes all artists to be equally, if not more jealous and prone to fury when brutally ignored. But no matter; here we see Roger Ebert in the zone; the zone that Life Itself captures and reveals in those moments when we decide to knock down our fences. Ebert said it better; he saw more; he knew more; he lectured; he wrote; he stopped drinking; he married; he argued and won; he argued and lost; he watched some more; he spoke when he had no voice; he lived. To be a film critic so trusted, loved, and hated – only that magical trio of feedback proves to the world that you’ve made it, Ma.