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The Humbling: My take on the book by Philip Roth #book2movies

The Humbling. Hmmm. Learning that Philip Roth's novel, 2009's The Humbling had been adapted for the screen, with AlPacino in the lead role of Simon Axler, the aging actor who has lost his stuff, with Greta Gerwig as a star-struck lesbian who ditches her lover, the dean of a women's college, in favor of the much older highly-acclaimed actor, I couldn't wait to read the book first. Knowing that the screenplay was co-written by the legendary Buck Henry; and that Barry Levinson directed, I was doubly excited. These are major players, huge names in the worlds of books and film; I couldn't wait for the copy I'd requested to arrive at my local branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.

I don't know about yours but my reading goes in fits and starts; sometimes I stay buried in a book, ignorant of what's happening in the world or whether I need to do a load of laundry. Other times I'm so busy with my own writing or obsessed with movies or tv shows, the books get a little less attention. I'm embarrassed to admit it but I was pretty happy to see how thin the book was, a mere 140 pages! I could breeze through this, and get the laundry done too.

Reading the overview of the novel had me quivery with anticipation:
Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth's startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance. His Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya, all his great roles, "are melted into air, into thin air." When he goes onstage he feels like a lunatic and looks like an idiot. His confidence in his powers has drained away; he imagines people laughing at him; he can no longer pretend to be someone else. "Something fundamental has vanished." His wife has gone, his audience has left him, his agent can't persuade him to make a comeback.
Into this shattering account of inexplicable and terrifying self-evacuation bursts a counterplot of unusual erotic desire, a consolation for a bereft life so risky and aberrant that it points not toward comfort and gratification but to a yet darker and more shocking end. In this long day's journey into night, told with Roth s inimitable urgency, bravura, and gravity, all the ways that we convince ourselves of our solidity, all our life's performances talent, love, sex, hope, energy, reputation are stripped off.
So how disappointed I was that 140 pages do not a great Philip Roth novel make?! Or that the book came off like bizarre soft-core porn? Feeling like a failure in his life, Axler falls in lust with said lesbian, Pegeen, who is so dazzled by the actor she basically becomes a different person. Not that things like that don't happen, life is long. Young girls, as the song goes, do get weary. So granted people need a change sometimes but I didn't believe hers. Unlike the movie version where Gerwig is in her twenties and Pacino —74 in real life — is 67, in Roth's book Pegeen is forty, certainly well-established in her sexuality. Axler, sixtyish, is an old friend of her parents. Thankfully, it's not so creepy that she grew up knowing him. There's no Woody Allen element here, but still the novel is kind of creepy.

For instance, Roth devotes a fair chunk of his very few pages to talking about the clothes he buys Pegeen. He's very well off and overjoyed to put her in women's clothing rather than the boyish togs she's used to wearing. Frankly, I found the notion that he could take her on a Pretty Woman shopping spree downright offensive; I think it's a guy thing, maybe an old man thing, to think they can take you shopping and buy you things thus buy your affection. But it's distasteful. Or at least I found it so when I was dating — and truthfully, in love with — a much older man, with an age difference not unlike that belonging to Axler and Pegeen. I recall flipping through racks in a trendy little boutique and my old man friend picking out super short, super sexy clothes for me to try on. I just wanted to get out of there pronto. I didn't feel like a so-called Pretty Woman, I felt like a prostitute.

Roth also includes a three way, everyman's fantasy, right? Here it's another example of the character's desperation, his misguided attempt to keep Pegeen on his side, to hold onto his control, his sense of self. What's hilarious is the surprise he feels that the two women — one of them a known lesbian — enjoys the sex play with the other woman, more than with him. In any case, while I like sex, and erotica has its place, but I could have done without Roth's particular sexual fantasies on the page. It was just embarrassing.

From what I'd read about the book and the movie as well with AlPacino playing the part of the humbled actor, I thought the novel would be a deep, mournful look at the aging process and at our attempts to regain our lost youth, at who we think we are. The notion of identity, especially when it's wrapped up with fame. There were snatches of that, I just expected it to be much more real, much less indulgent. More insightful, less seamy. And like life, I hoped it would have a better ending. I hope mine does!

I've heard mixed reviews about the movie; I'm not sure if I'll see it at all, even though I'm curious to see Pacino flex his muscles. Judging from the trailer, they play it for laughs much more than the book so it may work for me. In any case I didn't find the book funny at all so I'm not sure what to make of it.



I can say if you're searching for a film that looks at aging, as well as the question of fame, and identity and modern culture, I recommend Clouds of Sils Maria in which Juliet Binoche plays an aging actress who finds herself taking on the part of the older woman in a play in which she starred as the younger female lead many years ago. Co-starring Kristen Stewart as her assistant, with Chloe Grace Moretz as the actress now playing the younger woman, Clouds of Sils Maria from Olivier Assayas is well worth your time. I don't know if The Humbling from Barry Levinson will be.

The Humbling comes out January 23rd here in the states, I believe those of you in the UK get it at the end of this year, January 31st.

Here's the trailer The Humbling, and just for fun, the trailer for Clouds of Sils Maria.