American Masters "Philip Roth: Unmasked"
(Rochester, New York) – American Masters explores the life and career of Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novelist Philip Roth (b. March 19, 1933), often referred to as the greatest living American writer. Reclusive and diffident, Roth grants very few interviews, but for the first time, allowed a journalist to spend 10 days interviewing him on camera, both at his Upper West Side apartment in New York City and his 18th-century farmhouse in rural Connecticut. The result, American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked, a 90-minute documentary airing Sunday, March 31 at 2 p.m. on WXXI-TV/HD (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11), features Roth freely discussing very intimate aspects of his life and art as he has never done before.
In the film, Roth is candid about his unliterary upbringing in Newark, New Jersey, his writing process, his psychoanalysis, and the inspiration behind his most famous characters — Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh, Alexander Portnoy, and Mickey Sabbath — and his historical novels such as I Married a Communist (1998) and The Plot Against America (2004). Set against the backdrop of his times, American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked shares scenes from Roth’s daily routine, using images from his personal archives. Interviews include some of Roth’s oldest friends — Mia Farrow, who inspired part of his last novel Nemesis (2010), high school friend Dr. Bob Heyman, college friend Jane Brown Maas, and army comrade Martin Garbus — as well as The New Yorker’s literary critic and staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, and younger American writers Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander.
“Just before Roth publicly declared he had stopped writing, we filmed him at home and at work, in the streets of New York and in the countryside. But mostly, we let him talk. He spoke of his family, his fantasies, his obsessions, Jewish humor, the many controversies he stirred, the turmoil of sex, love, the writers he admired, fame, depression, old age, illness and death — all the while reading to us from his own books and enjoying the natural flow of the conversation,” says literary journalist Livia Manera, who co-directed and co-wrote American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked with filmmaker William Karel.
Goodbye, Columbus (1959), his collection of short stories, put the 26-year-old author on the map. Ten years later, Roth’s hilarious, ribald bestseller Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) propelled him into an international scandalous spotlight: the first of many controversies in which Judaism, sex, the role of women, and the parent-child relationship would take center stage. Yet, he steadily earned his reputation as a man of letters, commanding ownership of the Jewish-American novel and making Newark a literary destination. Practically inventing the genre of factual-fictional autobiography, Roth’s thinly veiled Zuckerman books follow the protagonist’s path from aspiring young writer to compromised celebrity and, most recently, older man facing death. Roth’s career was considered declining by 1990 and then exploded with a dozen bestsellers in the past two decades, including Sabbath’s Theater (1995), American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000). With 31 books to his credit, Roth has won every possible literary award, short of the Nobel Prize.
Credit: Courtesy of ©François Reumont
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