"Literary Genius, Cultural Icon, War Hero, Misanthropic Recluse, or Secret Pedophile?"
SALINGER is a documentary about the acclaimed, reclusive fiction author of the influential novel CATCHER IN THE RYE and other works. SALINGER is fascinating and informative, but loses steam toward the end and contains brief foul language and some strong newsreel footage of World War II and Holocaust victims, so caution is advised.
SALINGER is a documentary about the acclaimed, reclusive fiction writer J.D. Salinger, author of the influential novel CATCHER IN THE RYE and other works. Though it peters out in the second half, it’s a fascinating account of Salinger’s life and times. Like any biography dealing with a person’s whole life, it’s a mashup of contradictions, biographical details, social history, nooks, crannies, and alleyways.
The movie includes interviews with friends, former friends, critics, other famous writers, girlfriends, colleagues, and movie stars such as Martin Sheen and Edward Norton. It opens with some details about how reclusive the author became after CATCHER IN THE RYE, published in 1951, became one of the most popular books of the 20th Century. He became so reclusive while living in rural New Hampshire that famous magazines in the 1960s and 70s paid top dollar just trying to get a photo of him going to the post office, walking to his mailbox, or going for walks with his dog.
The movie tells how Salinger (who died in 2010) was the son of a Jewish cheese seller and a Catholic woman who changed her name to Miriam to pass as Jewish. Salinger’s parents sent him to military school, where he begins to write. After dropping out of college, he starts publishing short stories in one magazine, though he longs to get published in The New Yorker. At age 22 in 1941, he starts dating the beautiful 16-year-old daughter of the famous American playwright Eugene O’Neill. World War II separates Salinger and Oona, who meets 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin in 1943 and marries him instead. Then, in 1944, Salinger and his army unit go to England to prepare for D-Day.
Working in counter-intelligence, Salinger sees the horrors of war first hand, from Utah Beach on D-Day to the brutal fights among the French hedgerows to the Battle of the Bulge. He’s also there when his unit comes across one of Nazi Germany’s many concentration camps. The trauma of all those experiences causes a nervous breakdown, and Salinger spends a few weeks in the hospital for combat stress. “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live,” he later says.
After the war, Salinger marries and then quickly divorces a young German woman, who may have lied to him about her Nazi past. Salinger also starts getting published in The New Yorker, to great acclaim. Then, in 1951 comes the publication of the novel he had been working on during the war, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Despite some negative reviews, the novel (which is about a disaffected, rebellious youth in New York City who was just kicked out of boarding school) is greeted with raves and spends three months on the New York Times Bestsellers list. The novel’s popularity, even among young people (despite a lot of foul language, by the way), becomes so big that Salinger quickly tires of all the publicity and all the young people trying to get to him because they think he has the answers to their problems. After moving to rural New Hampshire and getting married to another younger woman, he withdraws further and further away from the limelight.
Through the years, however, his obsession with writing comes between him and his wife and their two children. He also becomes a Zen Buddhist and starts publishing fewer and fewer stories. When a couple short stories receive some harsh criticism in the mid 1960s, he quits publishing any more stories, but word ekes out that he’s reportedly still writing stories and novels that he intends publish after his death. Meanwhile, an affair with another young woman ends poorly, but, at 62, he marries another younger woman, age 22, and she remains with him until his death in 2010, at 91.
SALINGER the movie tells the story of a complex man. Though a very talented writer, his works have been criticized variously as obscene, too insular, too idiosyncratic, and (later) too preachy. Even so, the movie rightly notes that CATCHER IN THE RYE and his early short stories remain as acclaimed as ever, with many in the literary establishment still anxious to see his other alleged novels and short stories published. The filmmakers suggest that this process will begin in 2015, but who knows?
More disturbing is the documentary’s discussion of Salinger’s obsession with young women and his strained relationship with his second wife and their two children, especially their daughter.
For example, the filmmakers interview one elderly woman, who tells how she met Salinger on a beach when she was just 14 and he was 30 in 1949. Though Salinger waits until she’s 18 to start seeing her romantically, the woman says he broke off their relationship when she told him during a weekend getaway she was still a virgin, and he refused to undertake the “responsibility” of deflowering her. Toward the end of the movie, the filmmakers report that Salinger apparently liked to write a lot of long letters to young women he didn’t really know.
After his second marriage, Salinger built a small house on his property to do all his writing. However, he requires complete privacy while writing and sometimes doesn’t see his wife or children for two whole weeks. This obsession for complete privacy drives a wedge between he and his wife. Later, his daughter says it caused a strain in her relationship with him too, though the son denies this. The wife eventually gets a divorce in 1967, but the movie doesn’t mention that Salinger reportedly kept custody of the two children, aged about 12 and 7 at the time.
After watching the documentary SALINGER, one comes away with a contradictory view of the man and his work. Was he a literary genius, or just a talented cultural icon? Was he a war hero, or just a misanthropic recluse? Was he a hater of phoniness in people, or was he a bit of a phony himself? Was he a passionate man, or just a secret pedophile? Some claim that, for the rest of his life after the war, Salinger suffered post-traumatic stress disorder that scarred him psychologically. Others pooh-pooh that suggestion. Clearly, though, his war experiences and his young girlfriend running away with an even older Charlie Chaplin during the war era couldn’t have added to the man’s mental stability. Whatever the case, however, Salinger apparently just wanted people to judge him by his writing. In the movie, several fans and friends who met him claim he told them he’s just a writer, not a counselor, or guru, despite the impression CATCHER IN THE RYE may give.
Though it only loses steam toward the end, SALINGER just has brief foul language. Also, though the movie discusses several relationships with women, including three marriages, it doesn’t get into the salacious aspects of those relationships (except for the “being a virgin” mention, and a reference to the 30-year-old Salinger wisely telling a 14-year-old girl he can’t kiss her). More problematic is some strong newsreel footage of World War II, including black and white shots of burned corpses, injured soldiers, explosions, and dead Holocaust victims. Finally, SALINGER does mention the author’s intense interest in Buddhism, but it neglects to mention that Salinger also dabbled in Scientology for a time and, more strongly, in Christian Science.
All in all, therefore, MOVIEGUIDE® advises caution for this documentary, but extreme caution, or worse, for Salinger’s published writings, past and future. Regarding the last note, Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE contains a lot of obscenities and profanities and has had some negative influences on young people over the years. In fact, three famous assassins, including John Lennon’s killer and the President Reagan’s would-be assassin, admitted they were influenced by Salinger’s book and its rebellious attitude against adults, society and “phony” people.
(H, RoRo, PaPa, FRFR, RH, L, VV, S, N, A, D, MM) Light humanist worldview in documentary about famous, reclusive author, who appears to have had strong Romantic and pagan interests, including an apparent commitment to personal expression, rebellion against society, and Buddhism, but movie downplays the title character’s pagan religious beliefs and never really discusses the details of what exactly he believed, in a way that possibly smacks of revisionist secular history; two a** obscenities, one GD, and two light profanities using MG; strong violence includes newsreel footage from World War II of fighting, explosions, burned corpses, dead Holocaust victims, plus reference to a suicide that takes place at the end of one fictional short story and references to three assassinations, including famous footage of assassination attempt on President Reagan; no depicted sex or bedroom scenes, but title character goes through three marriages and seems to have a fascination with young women, plus movie discusses 30-year-old man meeting 14-year-old girl, deciding he can’t kiss her, then taking her away for a weekend after she turns 18, but woman later recalls he abruptly ended their friendship when she told him the first night of the weekend that she was still a “virgin”; dead Holocaust victims are nude, but no salacious sexual images and it’s more gruesome than anything else; alcohol use in photos and newsreel footage; smoking; and, title character sometimes seems to act hypocritically, possible misanthropy, title character withdraws from the world and from his family, and it’s revealed title character wrote long letters to young women, but any salacious details are left out.
SALINGER is a documentary about the acclaimed, reclusive fiction author of the influential novel CATCHER IN THE RYE and other works. The movie includes interviews with friends, former friends, critics, other famous writers, girlfriends, colleagues, and movie stars like Martin Sheen and Edward Norton. It details J.D. Salinger’s relationships with various young women, his three marriages, his relationship with his daughter, his writing career, his World War II experiences, his incredible popularity, and his reclusive life.
SALINGER the movie deftly tells the story of a complex man. For the most part, it’s fascinating and informative, though it loses steam toward the end. Salinger had some demons, including his war trauma and his obsession with younger women. However, his third and final marriage did last 29 years. SALINGER has only brief foul language, but there is some mature subject matter, especially strong, upsetting newsreel footage of World War II and the Holocaust. Despite multiple relationships with women, the documentary is almost totally free of salacious content. The documentary rates a caution, but MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution, or worse, when it comes to Salinger’s writing.