William Karel and Livia Manera’s American Masters profile of Philip Roth opens with the author proclaiming he’s less horrified by the prospect of death than by being subjected to a biographer’s inquiries, which is both a mission statement and a disclaimer for the profile that follows. (After a brief theatrical run, it will air on PBS beginning March 29.) “In masks,” Roth says, “there is freedom.”
Sometimes the novelist, who announced he would stop writing fiction and gave his final interview at the end of 2012, preemptively closes off avenues of inquiry. His brief, calamitous first marriage, which furnished material for several of his early novels, is described as “brutal and lurid,” full stop. No questions, please. Elsewhere, he dissembles his past, or, more charitably, misremembers it. He describes his sexual development being thwarted during his years at Bucknell University: With the sexes separated and their dorm rooms monitored, he wonders, “Where were you supposed to do this thing?” But his friends describe him as a ladies’ man, a far cry from the lust-riddled onanist of Portnoy’s Complaint. What of his childhood, this man who helped codify the stereotype of the adoring, suffocating Jewish mother? His parents, he says, “were not overbearing at all.”
Fortunately, Roth is more forthcoming, and insightful, on the subject of his work, as are the outside observers Unmasked taps: novelists Jonathan Franzen and Nicole Krauss, and New Yorker critic Claudia Roth Pierpont. The movie is mostly designed as an introductory survey, taking viewers through Roth’s oeuvre in chronological order, although it isn’t too heavily pedagogical; the discussion of Roth’s novelistic alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, begins midstream, leaving newbies to glean his significance from contextual clues.
Exclusively driven by talking heads, Unmasked misses an opportunity to unearth relics of the sensation caused by Portnoy’s Complaint, which made Roth a celebrity almost overnight—from a contemporary perspective, the notion of a literary novelist being trailed by people shouting phrases from his book is almost unthinkable. And though it might be unreasonable to expect Karel and Manera to succeed where others have failed, simply punting on the amount of autobiography in Roth’s novels seems like a cheat. Sticking to what’s on the page pays off, especially with regard to Roth’s undervalued late novels, but also means he has them just where he wants them.