A good 30 years before American Pie’s Jim Levinson became intimate with a classic American dessert, Alexander Portnoy was having his way with a piece of raw liver in his mother’s bathroom in Newark. It was the 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint that launched Philip Roth, already a National Book Award winner for Goodbye, Columbus, into a maelstrom of literary celebrity and controversy, and began a career-long conflation between the author and his notoriously lust-ridden characters. For a man who voices the wish that his biography be written only after he dies, the 80-year-old Roth is certainly open and willing to talk in PBS’s new bio-doc, Philip Roth: Unmasked.
Part of the consistently solid but rarely stylish American Masters series, the film provides fairly standard documentary fare. A sepia-toned tour of Roth’s childhood neighborhood in Newark—the same one that forms the backdrop of so much of his work—is given through a host of old family photographs, while a series of (sometimes overly) reverent talking heads enliven a discussion of the writer’s life and work. New Yorker veteran Claudia Roth Pierpont, who seems to know Roth’s entire oeuvre by heart, is particularly insightful, and although her face no longer moves in natural ways, longtime friend Mia Farrow brings sensitivity as well as celebrity cachet to the conversation.
Most enjoyable, however, is the gleefully energetic Jane Brown Maas, Roth’s friend since his days as a callow youth at Bucknell. Her charming stories about the stringent dating rules that governed same-sex dormitories in the 1950s are a fitting entry point into the film’s central question: to what extent has Roth’s private life informed his public writing? And though he is described as a devastatingly handsome ladies man, where did the unbridled perversions of Alexander Portnoy come from, in an environment where even the hemlines on women’s Bermuda shorts were heavily policed?
Philip Roth: Unmasked
In his 1960 essay “Writing American Fiction,” Roth, barely 27, proclaimed that literary fiction was being outdone by reality. He sought to close the gap by adopting a policy of uncensored, shameless authenticity that came to define his writing. In Portnoy’s Complaint, which takes the form of one long, hilariously candid psychoanalytic session between Portnoy and his admirably silent doctor, the writer embraced the same freedom that is granted to the patient of analysis: full disclosure. As wildly popular as the novel was, its publication provoked critical outrage, most notably among Jews for the irreverent and unflattering portrayal of fellow tribe members.
Though Roth remains genuinely confounded by the accusations of being a “self-hating Jew” and some kind of internal anti-Semite, there’s an unmistakable glimmer of glee in his eyes as he recalls the controversy that followed Portnoy’s Complaint, particularly the fan mail overflowing with photos of bikini-clad babes and the advance preparation he had to give his parents. These are anecdotes that could be lifted straight from Zuckerman Unbound (1981), and while Roth acknowledges the influence of his own life on his characters, particularly the recurring protagonist Nathan Zuckerman, he is also careful to distinguish himself from his fictional creations. Reality on its own does not a good novel make, Roth says: it must be buttressed by both journalistic investigation and inventive imagination.
Neither self-deprecating nor self-aggrandizing, Roth (who recently declared his retirement) is frank, forthcoming, funny, and enviably articulate. His palpable ease is in no small part due to the documentarians, William Karel and Livia Manera, who have facilitated a dynamic conversation rather than a rehearsed line of questioning. Although the particulars of his personal life are largely avoided, Roth is generous with his thoughts on sex, death, his literary influences, and the perpetual fear of “not being able to do it again”—an insecurity one would assume would have dissipated after the 31st novel. Sure to make any fan drool with delight are details of his writing process, from Roth’s preference for a stand-up desk to his character research with the likes of taxidermists and gravediggers, and his fresh unpacking of the psychologies behind his most famed characters.
Prolific, profound, and provocative, Roth’s rare trifecta of talent has only gotten stronger with time, and the film does a good job of discussing all phases of his work evenly. Reading passages of his own writing aloud from a plush armchair in his home in pastoral Connecticut, Roth is not so much masked by his alter egos as he is simply enjoying their company.