During its long run on PBS, American Masters has been the home of engrossing and noteworthy profiles of some of this country’s greatest artists, so when the series schedules a documentary called Philip Roth: Unmasked, anyone who cares about contemporary American literature is bound to feel a tingle.
After all, Roth may insist that he never sets out to deliberately provoke readers and critics, yet he has emerged as one of the most consistently provocative – and reclusive – American novelists of his generation.
Unfortunately, while this 90-minute documentary, which premieres Friday on most PBS affiliates in conjunction with Roth’s recent 80th birthday, is interesting in terms of providing insights into Roth’s prolific output, it falls well short of coaxing the writer into giving up much, if any, personal information.
Given that we’re talking about the author of many startlingly frank novels such as Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and the much-later Sabbath’s Theater (1995), wherein sex and the putative appeal of infidelity are recurring themes, it seems disingenuous of the filmmakers to slap a fairly sensational title like this one on a profile that doesn’t even mention Roth’s stormy marriage to actress Claire Bloom, who published a fairly toxic 1996 memoir called Leaving a Doll’s House about their relationship.
The American Masters press materials describe Philip Roth: Unmasked as “the first film biography” of the novelist, but even that is a bit of a stretch, given that the relatively skimpy chronicle of the writer’s personal life is presented almost exclusively through the prism of his writing. It would be far more accurate to describe this film as an appreciation, and if you approach it on those terms, you’ll find ample rewards. In fact, after watching this documentary, I’d be tempted to add Roth to the guest list of that fantasy dinner party we all compile in our heads from time to time. He’s absolutely charming, even while he is firmly deflecting any serious attempt to get a peek at the man behind the mask.
“Shame isn’t for writers,” he says of some of his more controversial work. “You have to be shameless. … I feel plenty of shame in my own life, don’t get me wrong. I’m just as shame-ridden as the next person is. But when I sit down to write, I’m free from shame.” (“And I’m also not about to share with you anything about my personal shame,” you are free to read between the lines).
If the mask slips at all, it’s during the last third of the program, when Roth addresses the stark realities of old age. As actress Mia Farrow, a longtime close friend featured in the film, admits, some of Roth’s recent novels on that theme have been almost terrifyingly bleak, and Roth, who suffers from chronic back pain, admits that now and then he has contemplated suicide. He also ruefully remarks that looking through his personal address book is “like walking through a cemetery.
“Writing turns out to be a dangerous job, when you think of the number of writers who have committed suicide,” he says. “There’s probably something inherently dangerous in the job or something in the temperament of those who choose the job. The list is long, so the question is: Why? What is there that is inherent to the job that leads so many first-class writers to commit suicide? I don’t know. But I don’t want to join the list.”