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Film Review: Light on an elusive literary character in 'Salinger'

In spite of missteps, "Salinger" tells us things about the author we didn't know.

September 13, 2013|By Andy Klein
  • For more than fifty years, J.D. Salinger, the elusive author of "The Catcher in the Rye," has been the subject of a relentless stream of newspaper and magazine articles as well as several biographies. Salinger has largely remained an enigma to the public and media alike. For the film "Salinger," filmmaker Shane Salerno interviewed hundreds of people the world over.
For more than fifty years, J.D. Salinger, the elusive… (Courtesy of The…)

One of the things we learn from Shane Salerno's biographical documentary about J.D. Salinger is that Salinger loved old Hollywood movies as much as loathed the idea of his own work ending up on the screen. Before he became famous for “Catcher in the Rye,” he sold his wonderful short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” to the Samuel Goldwyn Company and saw it morph into “My Foolish Heart,” a romance with Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward. He justifiably hated the film, which took a perfect, self-contained little tale and bloated it into something almost entirely different. You can find the story's dialogue in there if you pay attention.

One wonders what he would have thought of Salerno's film — or, more accurately, how much he would have despised it. Most famous people like their biopics in direct relation to how much they reflect their self-images back at them. In the case of Salinger, the effect would be magnified. Here was a man who spent the first half of his life successfully laboring for literary fame and the second half wanting to be left alone and refusing to publish anything. For years, there were rumors he had a massive case of writer's block, despite his claim to be writing every day. Salerno gets confirmation from a few of his friends that he really was writing; and claims at the end that he left behind five books to be published posthumously starting some time before 2020.

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Salinger is a compelling figure, in part because of his withdrawal from the world — or at least what New York literary types consider the world, i.e., New York. Salerno presents a succession of talking heads affirming Salinger's importance — Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, A.E. Hotchner, John Guare and Martin Sheen.

An excess of talking heads can be deadly in a documentary but Salinger left behind almost no footage for Salerno to plunder. Salerno chooses the most common solution — to “reenact” scenes, a la every true-crime show on TV. It's tacky there and it's even tackier here because of Salerno's apparent affection for lame metaphorical reenactments. If Salinger rejects a friend permanently, we will hear and/or see the iron door clanging shut. We repeatedly return to a Salinger surrogate typing away on a stage in an empty theater. Huh?

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