Philip Roth: Unmasked — Not Really

A new PBS doc dances around the edges of a fascinating writer’s life

Only a handful of Philip Roth’s twenty-seven novels have been adapted for the screen but none has come close to capturing the brilliant and impenitent author’s boldness on the page. (Imagine David Cronenberg’s version of Roth’s The Breast, Kathyrn Bigelow’s Operation Shylock, or Neil LaBute’s Sabbath’s Theater.) Airing tonight on PBS, Philip Roth: Unmasked offers a closer look at Roth and his world of agita and rage, of libido and ego run amok, but the portrait feels far from definitive.

Having just turned 80 on March 19 and announced his retirement from writing fiction (his last novel, Nemesis, appeared in 2010), Roth has been creating characters and investigating impropriety, mortality, virility, vanity, and self-flagellation (in every meaning of the word) across five decades. Unmasked—a curious title given Roth’s literary brazenness—opens with the author lamenting the fact that death and a biography await him and hoping for death first. Yet nothing in the documentary hints at what tumultuous revelations Roth would dread encountering. Directors William Karel and Livia Manera follow the writer from his early successes with his National Book Award-winning Goodbye, Columbus and his infamously insolent Portnoy’s Complaint (and his mother’s pre-publication fear that he had “delusions of grandeur”) to an astonishingly prolific later period including The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral.

For all the passionate testimonials from authors Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, and Jonathan Franzen, it falls to New Yorker critic and staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont to contextualize Roth’s career within a broader historical scope. Pierpont also seems to have been given the unenviable task of defending Roth on the subject of women. Unmasked would have benefited from more time spent with a critic who has contemplated Roth’s books against the backdrop of American history such as, say, Greil Marcus.

Roth is a direct, acute, and compelling conversationalist, but Unmasked doesn’t capture its subject as fully as a recent American Masters episode on the similarly camera-reticent David Geffen. It sidesteps, if not outright avoids, crucial details in the author’s personal story. The writer does discuss some distinctions between his life and the counterlives of his fictional alter egos Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, and “learned hedonist” David Kepesh. He also muses on writing, aging, and suicide. That his work has over the years been the cause for offense and controversy is other people’s problem. “Shame isn’t for writers,” Roth propounds.

“Of course, narcissistic vulnerability has become as commonplace as apple pie,” the critic Mark Krupnick once wrote. “What, at his best, makes Roth special is what in his fiction he does with his wounds.” Despite the rare pleasure of watching Roth expound upon his life and art, Unmasked does not give us enough of the wounds or the woundedness that makes him such a fundamental writer of our time.