'Philip Roth: Unmasked' review: A bit sanitized
THE SHOW "Philip Roth: Unmasked"
WHEN | WHERE Premieres at 9 p.m. Friday on WNET/13
WHAT IT'S ABOUT This documentary for PBS' "American Masters" series, written and directed by William Karel, profiles author Philip Roth, who turned 80 this month and is widely considered to be the greatest living American writer. The film follows Roth from his boyhood in Newark -- a setting that appears again and again in Roth's fiction -- to his early success with the publication of the libidinous "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1969 and his run of award-winning novels, including "Sabbath's Theater" and "American Pastoral," in the 1990s. Roth himself gets the lion's share of screen time in a series of interviews about his life, his literary inspirations (James Joyce, Saul Bellow) and his working methods. Interviews with journalists (Claudia Roth Pierpont), admiring younger authors (Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss) and friends (Mia Farrow), plus family photographs round out the portrait.
MY SAY Roth must be awfully happy with his PR this month, including widespread media coverage of his 80th birthday celebration in Newark and now this adulatory documentary. He rarely gives interviews, so the chance to hear him discuss his work at length is a boon for fans -- especially his assertion that "shame isn't for writers. You have to be shameless." The Roth sense of humor is on full display in anecdotes about his parents and about a ride with a New York cabdriver named Ed Portnoy, who is livid that Roth's novel has made him a controversial household name.
Still, "Philip Roth: Unmasked" feels too much like hagiography to be truly penetrating. Valid or not, the charge that Roth's work is misogynistic gets no airing here, and we hear nothing of his troubled second marriage to actress Claire Bloom, which was the subject of her scandalous 1996 memoir, "Leaving a Doll's House." Though Roth has long been discussed as a prime candidate for a Nobel Prize, his failure to bag world literature's highest honor is unaddressed, along with his recent declaration, during an interview with a French magazine, that he was done writing fiction.
BOTTOM LINE It's great to see extensive interview footage with the relaxed and funny author, but "Philip Roth: Unmasked" shies away from controversy and, as a result, feels a bit sanitized.