In creating a portrait of novelist J.D. Salinger, director Shane Salerno obviously had to contend with what Salinger’s creation Holden Caulfield might call “all that Greta Garbo kind of crap” — namely, that the author fled fame and recognition, spending the last decades of his life little-seen and never-published.
Salinger’s absence from the literary world makes up just part of his life story, and it’s but one of the fascinating topics that the new documentary “Salinger” explores. Opening in theaters as a new biography of the same name (by Salerno and David Shields) hits bookstores, it’s a fascinating look at an accomplished author, a man beloved despite (or even because of) his lack of desire to be loved by the general public.
While it occasionally jumps to the 1970s — where fans and photographers speak of Salinger sightings as though they had just spotted Bigfoot — the movie mostly chronologically follows the writer’s life. We see the young son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother attending the prep schools that clearly inspired “The Catcher in the Rye,” and we follow his harrowing stint as a counter-intelligence officer during World War II. (Salinger’s first experience of battle was the D-Day landing, and he was one of the liberators of Dachau.)
Two main passions emerge throughout the course of his life: writing (and, more specifically, getting published in The New Yorker) and women (the younger and more impressionable, the better). While “Salinger” praises the man’s work — with testimony from peers like Gore Vidal, E.L. Doctorow and A.E. Hotchner — the film avoids hagiography when dealing with Salinger’s personal life.
From his infatuation with a teenaged Oona O’Neill (which ended when she famously married Charlie Chaplin) to his brief first marriage to a former Nazi after the war, to his courting of the 14-year-old girl who would inspire “To Esmé, With Love and Squalor” (after she reached adulthood, he would deflower and then almost immediately drop her) to his spotty track record as a husband and father, Salinger clearly put his work in front of everyone and everything else. Joyce Maynard, who drew the author’s wrath by writing a tell-all about their time together, pops up to give her side of the story, and her version underscores Salinger’s pattern of difficult relationships.
“Salinger” has some gaps — the author’s children, for one, obviously declined to participate. Daughter Margaret surfaces in some vintage interviews given around the publication of her own memoir in 2000; Salinger’s son Matt, an actor and producer, barely rates any on-screen time, not even a clip from his films “Revenge of the Nerds” or the 1990 version of “Captain America.”
Salerno also dangles a chilling bit of recent history — the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan and the murderers of John Lennon and actress Rebecca Schaeffer all cited “Catcher” as an influence — but doesn’t really build on it; we never learn how Salinger reacted to his work inspiring these twisted individuals or whether this bit of infamy sent him deeper into seclusion. (This section of the film does feature some comments from John Guare, but “Salinger” assumes you already know that Guare featured a discussion of “Catcher in the Rye” and its impact on these killers in his play “Six Degrees of Separation.”)
Still, there’s plenty to chew on here for even casual fans of the author, from the revelation that he very intentionally used his “recluse” status as a way to get attention when he wanted to look at the one and only Hollywood adaptation of a Salinger work, the underrated “My Foolish Heart.”
And while Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack and Edward Norton pop up to provide some marquee value — and little else — it would have been interesting to hear from one of Salinger’s obvious disciples: writer-director Wes Anderson, whose film “The Royal Tenenbaums” was clearly influenced by Salinger’s Glass family.
“Salinger” ends with both some tantalizing late-in-life glimpses at the author and the astounding news that several of his unpublished works will emerge over the next few years. This documentary is, perhaps, a lengthy advertisement for both those upcoming books as well as the new biography, but it certainly stands on its own as a revealing glimpse at the genius and the misanthropy of a legendary man of letters.