July 24, 2008
Waxing (Philip) Roth
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
"The Contest for Aaron Gold" is noteworthy because its Philip Roth-esque lead is played by the recently deceased Sydney Pollack, who turns in a credible performance as a sculptor who has taken a job as the ceramics instructor at a summer camp. In the film, all the characters have Jewish last names, but there is no mention of the place being a Jewish summer camp, or of the campers or the counselors being Jewish. But there is some tension here between the lead character trying to stand up for his artistic beliefs and not cave in to the pressures of the man running the place -- some of the issues around money and career that arise later in "Goodbye, Columbus." "The Contest" ends with a twist suitable for Alfred Hitchcock. As a one-hour episodic TV drama, albeit a slightly obvious and gimmicky one, I found it satisfying and enjoyable.
Almost a decade passed before the next Roth work turned up on the screen. By the time it did, Roth had become celebrated, and somewhat notorious, for both his first collection of short stories, "Goodbye, Columbus," which came out in 1959, and for "Portnoy's Complaint," published in 1968. Both were made into films, and both star Richard Benjamin.
"Goodbye, Columbus," released in 1969, launched the careers of both Benjamin and Ali McGraw. This film was easy to find; a copy was readily available at the Santa Monica Public library.
Watching "Goodbye, Columbus" at half a century's remove from the short story's original publication is a strange experience. I found myself as ambivalent about Benjamin's Neil Klugman as he was about the Patimkin family. To me, the Klugmans and the Patimkins each seemed to be playing out their own strategy for rising above their immigrant backgrounds: One sought insulation from the evils of the world in books, the others in business and material goods. I found it hard to be judgmental, because I found them so much more alike than different.
McGraw's Brenda Patimkin was a far more sympathetic character than I recalled. Klugman, by contrast, never really seemed to care for Brenda beyond his desire for her (a trait common to Roth characters that would be examined in greater detail in "Portnoy"). In the original reviews, the film was praised for its naturalism and its humor, but from the 21st century perspective, I found it a less than satisfying experience.
"Portnoy's Complaint" was published in 1968 to huge acclaim. The 1972 film, written, produced and directed by Ernest Lehman, was considered a huge failure. Lehman was the screenwriter of such classics as "North by Northwest," "Sweet Smell of Success," "West Side Story," "The Sound of Music," "Sabrina" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" -- "Portnoy" is the only film he ever directed.
Watching the movie today, it struck me as yes, failed, but better than its reputation. Lehman chose to take what was in essence a comic monologue and set it as both a story of a love affair and of one man's attempt to heal himself via analysis of that relationship and his prior ones. At the same time, Lehman attempted to show the freedom that the sexual revolution inspired and the consequences of that freedom. Karen Black gives a very strong performance as "the monkey," and Richard Benjamin delivers a more nuanced performance than he gave in "Goodbye, Columbus."
Another 12 years passed before PBS offered up a version of Roth's "The Ghost Writer" as part of its American Masters series in 1984. As far as I can tell, this is the only production for which Roth is credited with collaborating on the script. That may have something to do with the fact that Claire Bloom, whom Roth was then involved with, plays a role in the production.
I had imagined that a copy of this would be at UCLA or available on DVD or VHS, or even offered at Eddie Brandt. But it wasn't. Luckily, it was in the collection of the Paley Center, and I was able to screen it in their library.
Mark Linn-Baker, best known as Benjy Stone in "My Favorite Year" (and who would later gain a measure of cultural currency on the sitcom, "Perfect Strangers") plays the young Nathan Zuckerman, a writer at the start of his career visiting Lonoff, a famous older writer, at Lonoff's country home on the very occasion when Lonoff's wife (Claire Bloom) leaves, and a much younger woman, his former student, urges Lonoff to run off with her. Zuckerman, whose parents and rabbi have rebuked him for the way he portrays Jews in his work, imagines the young woman to be Anne Frank, an Anne who survived the war and is now going to marry him.