Will Roger Ebert doc ‘Life Itself’ get thumbs up from Oscars?

Could the late Roger Ebert be honored at the Oscars?

Sure, critics can have a contentious relationship with the Hollywood elite, publicly skewering their work in print, on TV, or online; indeed, Ebert did all three. He is the subject of “Life Itself,” an acclaimed documentary that follows him during the last months of his life. After wowing the crowds at Sundance, it is being released commercially on July 4.

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Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years, died in April 2013 after a long battle with cancer. He won a Pulitzer Prize, partnered with (and often battled) Chicago Tribune rival Gene Siskel on their influential syndicated series “At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert,” and helped launch careers.

He was one of the early champions of Martin Scorsese, who executive produced “Life Itself,” and supported a wide range of other filmmakers including Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, and Ramin Bahrani, all of whom are interviewed for the film.

He also lauded documentarian Steve James, who directed “Life Itself.” When the filmmaker first signed on for the project, he expected to follow the famous critic as he lived an active life with his wife Chaz, but that changed when a fractured hip revealed the return of Ebert’s cancer. Said James, “We couldn’t have known then, that Roger would be with us only four more months. But during that time, he showed his trademark wit, good spirits, and toughness. I hope the film captures that.”

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If James’s effort wins him an Oscar, it would be especially vindicating. After all, Ebert named James’s landmark documentary “Hoop Dreams” as his favorite film of 1994 and then of the decade, but it was snubbed by the academy.

As Ebert revealed on the occasion of film’s 15th anniversary in 2009, “When one [Oscar voter] gave up on a film, he waved a light on the screen. When a majority of flashlights had voted, the film was switched off. ‘Hoop Dreams’ was stopped after 15 minutes. There was such outrage that the Academy, under attack led by the great Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, rewrote its rules for the documentary selection process.”

While James did reap an Oscar bid for Best Film Editing for “Hoop Dreams,” which the International Documentary Assn. in 2007 named the best documentary of all time, he has never been nominated for Best Documentary.

So, not only might Ebert, whose many books include “Your Movie Sucks,” be the subject of an Oscar-winning film, he might simultaneously right a two decade old wrong by delivering James his first Oscar.

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The Oscars embraced Ebert as one of their own during this year’s telecast during the “In Memoriam” segment. Siskel got a similar salute after his death 15 years earlier, when emcee Whoopi Goldberg gave the late critic a thumbs up. And if the affection shown by Scorsese, Morris, and Herzog in “Life Itself” is any indication, he certainly has friends within the academy.

So far, critics have been predictably effusive about the film that honors one of their own. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy called it “engrossing, unflinching, moving, and comprehensive,” while Chicago Tribune writer (and Ebert’s eventual “At the Movies” successor) Michael Phillips said, “It’s a clear-eyed portrait of a complicated, Falstaffian figure. The film is a little soft, and tactful to a fault. Yet it’s a work of taste and generosity, in keeping with its subject.”

Do you think “Life Itself” will be an Oscar-winner? Discuss this year’s early Oscar favorites in our forums.

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