Film Review: Philip Roth: Unmasked

The focus is on one of the great writers of our time in this admiring if less than revealing documentary. 

The astonishingly prolific writer Philip Roth is profiled in this “American Masters” documentary, which has a somewhat misleading title. Although much information is given about Roth’s early years, as the progeny of Jewish immigrants in Newark, New Jersey, his later success as a writer, and some of his creative thought process, a great deal of piquant information is left out, perhaps due to the author’s extensive involvement here.

Roth’s first wife in what he describes as a “brutal” marriage goes unnamed—she was Margaret Martinson and he wrote about her extensively. His longtime companion, actress Claire Bloom, whom he later wed, is not mentioned at all. She, in fact, wrote an intensely candid memoir about the breakdown of their relationship, much of it due to Roth’s serious aversion to her daughter by Rod Steiger. (Roth now seems to enjoy a calmer friendship with Mia Farrow, who is interviewed here.)

What we do get is an overview of Roth’s literary career, with such commentators as a somewhat envious Jonathan Franzen, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander weighing in with awestruck admiration of his extensive output. Roth himself comes off as a sort of Everyguy, very self-deprecating and pretty humble in the way that writers often like to portray themselves as just plain hard-workin’ stiffs. One has to wonder how accurate this impression really is.

Roth does manage to hold our interest and, however much of a self-censor despite his avowed credo of shamelessness in the art, is good company for the 90-minute running time, filled with striking quotes which have stayed with him throughout his life, like Freud’s observation that a child who is truly loved by his mother can become a conquistador. That was certainly true of Mama Roth, although when the scandalously successful Portnoy’s Complaint came out and Roth tried to warn his parents about the notoriety they’d all gain, he claims she burst into tears at her son’s delusions of grandeur. He had a trickier relationship with his father, having to get out of Newark ASAP because of his domineering ways (although in later years Daddy was known to keep copies of Portnoy’s Complaint around which he himself autographed for friends).

These days, Roth seems to be preoccupied with mortality as friends die and he personally deals with severe back pain requiring serious medication. Thoughts of suicide occur and he says, “Writing is a dangerous profession,” over an extensive montage of the many authors who joined the Do It Yourself Club.  

Whatever one may think of Roth—and he has his detractors from the early days when he was criticized as an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew—there’s no doubting his influence as a literary pioneer in dealing with sexual matters, gaining success as he did at the height of the Swinging ’60s. His subsequent and most recent books attest to the fact that, at least on the page, he remains an unregenerate satyr, in one of them loudly extolling the virtues of adultery. While discussing them, he makes repeated attempts to emphasize that he is not his characters, but the heavily autobiographical information he employs would belie this statement. Later in his career, he made a switch from the highly personal to more political and historical concerns, with equal critical and commercial success. This reviewer confesses to not having actually read a lot of the later Roth, but Philip Roth: Unmasked does make me want to, even though the chosen passages the author reads in the film are, strangely, often less than electrifying.