Tonight’s documentary SALINGER gives us all an unprecedented look inside the private world of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of the modern literary legend that is ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. To say the book has made a major impact on the lives of many of its readers would be a vast understatement, and Salinger himself has been often held up as a reluctant god.
The documentary SALINGER gives us all an unprecedented look inside the private world of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of the modern literary legend that is ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. To say the book has made a major impact on the lives of many of its readers would be a vast understatement, and Salinger himself has been often held up as a reluctant god.
The work of writer/director Shane Salerno, SALINGER etches out a portrait of the emotionally fragile man, from his great “wounding” by former girlfriend Oona O'Neill's to his horror when confronted by the atrocities committed at Dachau concentration camp during WWII and years struggling to readjust to the mundane day to day of postwar life in the U.S.
It features interviews with an insanely wide number of subjects – 150 to be exact. Most importantly these include the author’s friends, colleagues and members of his inner circle who have never spoken on the record before, and it also includes film footage, photographs and other material that has never been seen.
Where the doco really succeeds for me is during the gripping, heartbreaking section on World War II, and in the exquisite, often sad details in the stories told by the likes of Joyce Maynard. Author Maynard, who at age 19 began receiving smitten (inappropriate perhaps?) letters from Salinger, went on to engage in a complicated live-in love affair with him - a man 35 years her senior. The young Maynard was unfortunate enough to race headfirst into the author's dark side. She later wrote a book about the experience that I now am dying to read, and her comments are genuinely illuminating and disturbing in turn.
In addition to the likes of Maynard and luminaries such as Gore Vidal and E.L. Doctorow, names like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, Martin Sheen and Pulitzer Prize winners A. Scott Berg and Elizabeth Frank talk about Salinger's influence on their lives. The latter two I think are a great addition, but the documentary's gratuitous cameos by people who have no business turning up in this project, and who some believe were included “merely to give the motion picture a wide berth at the box office” – as in DeVito and Judd Apatow – in my opinion just waste space. More welcome and giving the film significant weight are appearances by Salinger's contemporaries, such as John Guare and the late Vidal. More of that would have been good.
Critics seem exceptionally divided on the film, which they clearly either love beyond belief or outright hate. One says that SALINGER has a “shallow, paparazzo literalism” and that it “just wants to catch the legendarily reclusive Salinger getting into a Jeep”, which is actually pretty funny, albeit harsh! Another says, “Salinger moved to the woods of New Hampshire partly to escape the intrusions and indignities of American celebrity culture. SALINGER is that culture’s revenge”, which is equally pointed but in some ways, quite accurate.
I was interested to see that a companion book, also titled SALINGER and authored by Salerno and David Shield, debuted at number six on The New York Times bestseller list around the time of the film’s release. It is also interesting to note that The Weinstein Company announced in 2013 that it was working with Salerno on developing a feature film adaptation of the documentary. How strange is that? But I digress.
When it comes to SALINGER I don't’ love it and I don’t hate it, and if you peel away the celebrity babble it most definitely stands up as a solid portrait of the author and essential viewing for fans.