In America's favorite film critic's bestselling new memoir, Life Itself, we learn more about the former Siskel and Ebert host than we maybe strictly wanted to know. We meet Ebert the Catholic Schoolboy, Ebert the Intrepid Boy Reporter, Ebert the Pulitzer Prize Winner, Ebert the Cancer Survivor, Ebert the Internet King, and my personal favorite: Ebert the Lusty.
"It was in Cape Town that I first slept the night with a black woman," he relates helpfully on page 112, before launching into a comprehensive retelling of the events of that night. Also, this: "Ever since I became aware of them...I've considered full and pendulous breasts the most appealing visual of the human anatomy." Here, he's explaining his lifelong bond with breast-obsessed B-movie legend Russ Meyer, director of Faster Pussy Cat Kill, Kill and Ebert's co-writer on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
The Meyer quote comes from a very weird scene in a book filled with very weird scenes. A starred review in Publisher's Weekly calls this collection of essays "witty and passionate." It is, but what the reviewer fails to mention is that a lot of it is nuts, particularly the bits that detail his passion for the ladies:
5. Ebert experienced transcendence upon meeting Dolly Parton
On page 212: "In Dallas for the premiere of 9 to 5, I had an uncanny experience and on the plane home to Chicago I confessed it to Siskel: I had been granted a private half hour with Dolly Parton, and as we spoke I was filled with a strange ethereal grace. This was not spiritual, nor was it sexual. It was healing and comforting. Gene listened, and said, 'Roger, I felt the exact same thing during my interview with her.' We looked at each other. What did this mean? Neither one of us ever felt that feeling again. From time to time we would refer to it in wonder."
4. As an undergraduate, he lost his virginity to a prostitute he met at a nightclub
On page 349: "'Friendly chap, aren't you?' she said. I drew back but she pulled me close again. 'Want to become better friends?' she asked. The next afternoon I called her number and visited her in a beachfront apartment. She was clearly naked under a shift. She was also friendly and tactful. "Let's the get the business out of the way,' she said, but after I handed over my money I lost my nerve and said 'I don't have a whole lot of experience. Maybe we could just talk.' 'Stand up here," she said, and put her arms around me. She put her head on my chest. She moved against me. She took my hands and pressed them against her breasts under the shift. These were the first breasts I had touched that were not encased in a brassiere. They were full and indescribably gratifying. 'Now you're friendly again,' she said."
3. A woman once convinced him she had conceived his fake child
On page 359: "She lived out of state and reported in urgent detail the progress of her pregnancy. She was overweight in a pleasing way and was plump enough to plausibly be pregnant. I sent her money for expenses. In the middle of one night I received a call that her water had broken and she was on the way to the hospital. My child was being born.
An hour later the phone rang again, and an unfamiliar voice said, 'Roger, we've never met. I'm the woman who lives upstairs. I know what's been going, and I want to tell you that woman has never been pregnant.'"
2. He had a thing for Oprah, but she turned him down:
On page 333: "I never thought Oprah was really all that fat. I thought she was sexy. I did ask her out one other time, when the Count Basie Orchestra was at the Park West, but it wasn't precisely a date. She had to leave early to be at work before dawn and left in her own car. Did I have some half-formed romantic notion in mind? Oprah tactfully and subtly communicated that whatever I had in mind, it wasn't happening."
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1. Which was lucky, because he went on to meet his current wife, Chaz, making for some of the best passages in the book
On page 364: "Her love letters were poetic, idealistic, and sometimes passionate. As a newspaperman, I observed that she never, ever, made a copy-reading error. I saved every one of her letters along with my own and have them encrypted on my computer, locked inside a file where I can't reach them because the program and the operating system are now twenty years out of date. But they're in there I'm not about to entrust them to anyone at the Apple Genius Bar."
A full reading proves that Ebert is an American Hero for our times: Resilient, ambitious, web-savvy, driven, and just the right amount of pervy.
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