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

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.

RATING 10 / 10