Philip Roth was 80 on March 19.
If, then, you expect the great writer (and perennial Nobel loser) to be a sweet, kindly old man a bit like Heidi's grandfather, you'll probably want to avoid tonight's PBS Premiere of Livia Manera's “Philip Roth, Unmasked” at 9 p.m. on Channel 17.
The 90-minute biography begins with Roth, full-on, leveling with Manera's camera: “In the coming years, I have two great calamities to face: death and a biography. Let's hope the first comes first.”
As if that weren't acerbic enough, the next two minutes bring us, quite bluntly, his distaste at being thought of as a “Jewish American Writer.”
“I don't write in Jewish” says Roth. “I write in American.” He is, then, an American writer first, last and always – Newark's finest – and woebetide anyone running their threshers through his life and making hay out of it for their own purposes.
Which is precisely why I wish the free-swinging young literary iconoclast we had at the beginning of his career were still with us to have a go at PBS' “American Masters” nonstop reverence in “Philip Roth: Unmasked.” I'd even settle for the honest and unvarnished opinion of Roth now at 80 of this docu-ode.
Surely the feisty, 80-year old truth-monger, who tells us on camera how little regard he has for gratuitous decorum, would have some delightful things to say about a documentary bio that shows us a bus tour pointing out geographical Newark milestones dedicated to “the genius of Philip Roth” including a street called Philip Roth Plaza.
When the camera shows us the phenomenally ordinary home at 81 Summit Ave. in which Roth spent his boyhood now marked by a plaque that reads “Historic Site – Philip Roth Home” you might just as well be transplanted to 1957 and walking near the corner of Delaware and Virginia to see the plaque outside a dark bat cave of a house telling you it was where Mark Twain lived during the 18 months when he edited The Buffalo Express. And that is the paradox one can't help thinking would be given a thorough shakedown by the antic and savage young iconoclast who happens to have the same name as the octogenarian literary institution now presented to us with wall-to-wall PBS decorum.
“Shame isn't for writers,” Roth tells us now about a revelation he had before writing “Portnoy's Complaint.” “You have to be shameless … This doesn't mean you have to be obscene and crazy and smear your pages with feces. That's not the point.”
If only the people who put “Philip Roth Unmasked” together had the same chutzpah.
Yes, it's true you'll hear at least one solid four-letter Anglo-Saxonism during the proceedings that you don't usually hear in Friday prime time.
And, even more startling, you'll also hear a contemptuous sneer from Roth at the very idea of marital fidelity in Western Civilization that even Bill Maher would be unlikely to snort a few minutes later on his omnidirectional HBO mockfest “Real Time.”
But even ex-Playboy Mansion habitue Maher would be unlikely to mock marital fidelity the way Philip Roth does when he's “unmasked” for PBS. In that regard, this decidedly faithful rendering of an aged Philip Roth discussing life and career is delighted to go all manner of places younger and more timid types might not go.
And that is what Oprah's onetime novelistic nemesis Jonathan Franzen is so eager to tell us inspired him so much about Roth's example. The Philip Roth novelistic credo, says Franzen, is that “I'm just going to follow myself. I'm going to be more honest, more outrageously 'about me' than any other writer has ever been.”
And right about there, almost anyone might well begin to suspect that as superb a 90-minute portrait as this is of a living American literary treasure at the age of 80, it's all considerably more reverential than any sensible portrait ought to have been.
“Any OTHER writer has ever been?” one is tempted to ask Franzen. That covers an awful lot of territory in the history of Western writing. Perhaps some less hyperbolic praise was called for there. And a bit more common sense.
But that's the whole point of this particular exercise in PBS worship.
In other words, you're not going to find in this any interviews – archival or otherwise – with Roth's 82-year old ex-wife Claire Bloom, the great actress who was so ruthless about her many years of marriage to Roth in her own book “A Doll's House.”
Nor will you find much representation of the idea here that the great American novelist of Roth's generation who so long deserved a Nobel Prize – and never got one – was John Updike, not Philip Roth.
Updike, in his Bech books, was able to invent a hilarious Roth simulacrum. Could Roth ever have done the same? I sincerely doubt it.
Updike was 76 when he died in 2009.
A good question, it seems to me, is whether or not Updike would be met with the same general all-encompassing celebration as Roth if he'd lived four more years and made it to 80.
Not only was this biographical film loudly hosannaed when it was given its premiere a few weeks ago in Manhattan's Film Forum, it was accompanied by New York Magazine takeouts where everyone mildly literarly and their Uncle Steve were asked to pick out their favorite Philip Roth novels.
And too, Roth's truly remarkable literary productivity throughout the '80s, '90s and aughts has been collected in more official Library of America publications than any other living American writer. To those who aren't steeped in America's literary and publishing politics, it's necessary to explain that standardized and luxuriant Library of America publication – which promises that books will never go out of print – is the apex of literary prestige for an American writer.
Fellow writers included in Manera's Roth portrait are Franzen, Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander and New Yorker editor and staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont – an interesting, bunch, to be sure but very far from the mark if you're looking for any widely divergent viewpoints.
Personally, I must confess that as enormous as my admiration has always been for Philip Roth, I've never been able to get over the entirely outsized reputation of “Portnoy's Complaint” as against another wonderfully monological novel that was published at around the same time, Stanley Elkin's “The Dick Gibson Show.”
What is unavoidable to notice about Roth – and which he himself might well have called attention to in his free-swinging youth – is that his most dedicated readership is composed of graduate students, instructors, professors and English Department refugees from all over America who share all manner of background with Roth himself.
And that's probably the canniest thing of all about “Philip Roth, Unmasked” premiering this evening on PBS.
It's not entirely true that Roth's urban, collegiate and ex-collegiate readership is absolutely identical with the most faithful audience for PBS. But it is certainly a huge constituent of PBS' most faithful and contributory audience at money solicitation time.
A PBS “American Masters” biography of Roth is as much of a membership natural as a biography of Mel Brooks (which is coming up on PBS in May) or Woody Allen.
And that's where “Philip Roth, Unmasked” comes with its perhaps most pointed revelation.
We learn from this evening's documentary that one of Roth's closest and most admiring friends is actress Mia Farrow who was, for so long, the consort and de facto partner of Woody Allen (until the head-rocking moment when he took up with – and later married –her adopted daughter Soon Yi.)
In my opinion, one of Allen's funniest – and most savage – latter-day movies is “Deconstructing Harry,” whose hero bears about as much resemblance to Philip Roth as a filmmaker's fictional writer can do without setting off a libel suit.
Hearing Mia Farrow now praise her good pal Philip Roth so unreservedly suddenly explains any question we might have had about why “Deconstructing Harry” was so wildly funny in such a vehemently personal way.
Too bad we'll never see a whole PBS TV show about that. But hey, at least we've got this one.
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