A Remarkable Portrait of a Reclusive American Treasure: 'American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked'

Still from American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked by Francois Reumont

Philip Roth comes off as a gentler man than we might imagine, and when he speaks or reads from his work he never disappoints.

American Masters

Distributor: PBS
Cast: Philip Roth, Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Franzen, Mia Farrow
Network: PBS
UK release date: Available as import
US release date: 2013-04-02

American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked is a thorough celebration of the greatest living American writer. For many artists, the only fate worse than death is the biography and Roth, who recently turned 80, is known for his reclusive nature and reluctance to grant interviews, making this entry in the American Masters series all the more remarkable.

Filmmakers Livia Manera and William Karel were granted ten days with the master, interviewing and filming him both at his Connecticut home and his New York City apartment. The result of their labor is a 90-minute film that doesn’t answer all our questions––nor do we really want it to––but is beautifully filmed and beautifully written.

Roth discusses his early life in Newark, New Jersey; he explains that he was the only true reader in his household and that his parents hoped that he would enter a respectable profession. He escaped to Bucknell University in his late teens where he began developing his craft, writing stories that he now deems forgettable, and becoming one of the more popular students on campus. High school friend Dr. Bob Heyman and college friend Jane Brown Maas report on the Roth they remember––the young man who’d further his education in Chicago and master the short story while enlisted in the Army.

Although he showed early promise with 1959’s Goodbye, Columbus, he wrote and published little in the next decade. An unfulfilling marriage was key to his unhappiness––as key as psychotherapy was to bringing him into one of the most remarkable moments of his career. Therapy, he recalls, taught him that he could say anything, and so he decided that he would write his next novel as though it were being told to a shrink. A kind of confession.

The result was, of course, the classic Portnoy’s Complaint.

Not only did the novel propel him fully into the spotlight––he claims his parents didn’t believe him when he took them aside before the book’s publication and said that he was going to be getting a lot of attention and that they shouldn’t feel the need to talk to the press; delusions of grandeur, his mother said––it also intensified many of the criticisms he’d heard after Goodbye, Columbus, chief among them that he was sex-obsessed, misogynistic, anti-Semitic. Those tags would stick with him throughout his career, but he has never softened his approach, never given in to fears of such criticism.

Roth writes with a fierceness and intellect that sets him above and beyond many of his peers and his output in the decade after Portnoy’s Complaint is noteworthy for his sense of artistic adventure. There were many fine novels to come––1977’s The Professor of Desire, The Ghost Writer (1979), one of nine Zuckerman books––but it was in 1986 that he began to deliver command performance after command performance via The Counterlife, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

He also unveiled his darkest works, 1993’s brilliant Operation Shylock, 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater, and then, in 1997 the beginning of his American Trilogy with American Pastoral (probably his finest book), I Married A Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). He focused on shorter novels after 2001 but even that late development saw his powers grow rather than diminish.

The filmmakers touch on this rush of creativity as well as his 1991 memoir Patrimony: A True Story, which examined the life and death of Roth’s father, Herman. He is frank about the writing of that book and his writing process as well. He discusses his critics, the chronic pain he’s suffered, and some of the ways in which he feels he’s been misunderstood.

His good friend Mia Farrow also appears in the film––we learn that she inspired elements of his final novel, 2010’s Nemesis. She, like Roth himself and his other friends present across this film, shows that Roth is a man capable of great warmth and deep humor in addition to his immeasurable intellect. He comes off in the film as a gentler man than we might imagine, and when he speaks or reads from his work he never disappoints.

Fellow writers Nicole Krauss (Great House, The History of Love) and Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges) appear alongside New Yorker critic and staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont to weigh in on Roth’s powers.

The real show, of course, is the man himself and Unmasked will long be held in high esteem for what it reveals and how it celebrates its great subject.

Watch Philip Roth: Unmasked on PBS. See more from American Masters.







Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.