Back in 2009 when Philip Roth wrote The Humbling, I really didn’t want to read the book. In fact, I even wrote here on AfterEllen that I wouldn’t. But curiosity got the best of me after reading reviews, which indicated the plot focused on an aging male actor who begins a relationship with a middle age lesbian.
Now there’s a film version of The Humbling, and some photos have been released, which means it’s probably about time I share with you what I learned from the novel, which is largely that Philip Roth has misogynistic and homophobic fantasies of transforming a gay woman into his very own housewife.
The movie already looks to be a little different in that they cast 31-year-old Greta Gerwig to play the role of Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the lesbian character in question that is written to be 40. In photos, she does not have the look Roth details in the book:
She was dressed for the countryside, in well-worn work boots and a red zippered jacket, and her hair, which she had incorrectly as blond, like her mother’s, was a deep brown and cut close to the skull, so short at the back as to appear to be clipped by a barber’s trimmer.
In essence, Pegeen is supposed to look like a stereotypical lesbian. She moves to New York from Montana and calls herself “an anomaly — a woman who sleeps with women.”
Al Pacino plays Simon Axler, the 60-year-old thespian who suddenly loses his ability to act and checks into a mental hospital before secluding himself at a house in upstate New York. Axler used to perform with Pegeen’s parents, which is how they know one another in the first place. But it’s by chance she calls him up after a break-up that they end up moving in together. The break-up, Pegeen explains in the book, is because her partner of six years, Priscilla, suddenly decided to transition.
Priscilla announced that she had begun taking hormonal injections to promote facial hair growth and deepen her voice. Her plan was to have her breasts surgically removed and become a man. Alone, Priscilla admitted, she had been dreaming this up for a long time, and would not turn back however much Pegeen pleaded.
While, certainly, these kinds of situations could and do happen in our lives, the way Roth details it is like a straight-up male fantasy (“If Priscilla could become a heterosexual male, Pegeen could become a heterosexual female.”) Axler begins to shower Pegeen with new, feminine clothes and she grows her hair out, cooks for him, even breaks off a relationship with a female dean, Louise. The dean is written as maniacal and manipulative, a psycho lesbian type who aims to ruin Pegeen’s life for treating her so callously. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.)
Kyra Sedgwick plays Louise, who obsessively threatens Pegeen and even calls her parents to out her as, well, straight.
As a fan of both Greta Gerwig and Kyra Sedgwick, it disheartens me to see them in roles like these that demean queer women and feed into fetishizing archetypes. The film, of course, could differ slightly from the original novel, but it seems Al Pacino was such a fan of the original book that this adaptation is a passion project he helped get off the ground, so I’m not holding out much hope. The screenplay is written by two men (Buck Henry and Michal Zebede) and the director is also male (Barry Levinson), which isn’t to say that they don’t know how to portray lesbians, but it all begs a question that Roth writes in his own novel:
What if he proved to be no more than a brief male intrusion into a lesbian life?
The Humbling is opening at the Venice Film Festival this month and coming to North America in September as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, which means it’ll likely be widely available in the next year. I don’t know that I want to see it, but I know I definitely will. I have to know what the world is seeing about us and believing as some kind of truth, or ammunition against us when we say it’s not about meeting “the right man.” Someone like Pegeen could surely be bisexual in real life, but she’s not written that way. She’s written as a upper class white man’s paper doll dream. Fix her up how you like and do with her what you will. That’s what women are for in the hands of powerful men.
I won’t ruin the book or the movie for you by spoiling the ending, but suffice to say it’s not a fairytale ending. Perhaps it’s just a reminder that fantasies are often better left thriving inside of our minds and not our realities.