Shane Salerno’s new documentary ‘Salinger’ attempts to crack some of the mystery of the reclusive author. Because J.D. Salinger avoided the spotlight, it made him even more famous. His seminal masterpiece, “‘The Catcher in the Rye” spoke to millions of teenagers (selling 60 million copies and still going strong). It continues to influence new generations. This is a fascinating and eye-opening portrait of one of the greatest writers in American literature. Melodramatic at times, Salerno manages to reveal enough tidbits that will keep you engrossed until the explosive third act. There is enough in this film to captivate causal fans as well as “Catcher in the Rye” obsessives.
Speaking of obsessive fans, Salerno admits to being one. Salerno is no stranger to a successful writing career either. He is a bit of a writing prodigy in the film industry. To give you a taste, at the age of 24, Salerno wrote the screenplay for ‘Armageddon’ directed by Michael Bay. Now 40, he is still one of the most in-demand scribes in Hollywood. His next writing project is penning the screenplay for a sequel to James Cameron’s ‘Avatar.’ Salerno’s documentary is a passion project. He spent 10 years researching the film that includes more than 100 people (writers, celebrities, and ex-lovers). It’s a tremendous feat.
Sure, the biopic includes speculation. Of course, it does. Salinger was a very private individual. Yet, it gets so many aspects of his life right. The main one the film gets spot on is how World War II shaped Salinger’s moody prose. Although Salinger was brought up in privilege and attended private schools in New York, he never got caught up in the superficiality of high society. He enlisted as a soldier and his first brush of combat came from storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day with pages of “Catcher in the Rye” tucked away in his uniform. Salinger endured an astonishing 299 days of various battles during the war. Seeing the ugly side of humanity tweaked his psyche forever.
Salinger was a perfectionist and wrote every day. He understood rejection and it took him many attempts to get his short stories accepted by the editors at the ‘New Yorker.’ It was one of the premiere literary magazines of that era. The film explains why he was a recluse but still knew how to work a crowd at a social gathering. The impact the novel, “Catcher in the Rye” had on adolescents is unprecedented even to this day. Youth would stalk him like a celebrity just to have the chance to talk to their literary idol. Salinger cringed at this kind of attention and repeatedly told people he didn’t know the meaning of life, “I’m just a fiction writer” he implored.
It’s unfortunate the influence the protagonist Holden Caulfield had on sick individuals such as John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Police found “The Catcher in the Rye” among half a dozen other books in his hotel room. However, the most well-known tragedy associated with “The Catcher in the Rye” is Mark David Chapman’s shooting of John Lennon. Chapman identified so much to the novel’s protagonist; he wanted to change his name to Holden Caulfield. Salerno brilliantly conveys how the weight of these events took their toll on him and thus, one of the main reasons he escaped the media attention to Cornish, New Hampshire. His refuge was a guest house he built on his property aptly nicknamed ‘The Bunker.’ He would lock himself in this writing sanctuary for days when he was in the "zone."
Another fascinating aspect of the documentary is his obsession with young girls and their attraction to him. It wasn’t to get them into bed. His writing and characters were influenced by the beauty and innocence younger girls possessed. The film gets an exclusive interview with one of his young paramours, Joyce Maynard. She became an instant rockstar when she wrote a first-person cover story for the New York Times at the age of 18 that caught Salinger’s attention and soon thereafter she lived with Salinger (with her mother’s consent). Another interesting part of the film is Salinger’s love for movies but his disdain at Hollywood for butchering one of his stories into a movie. In his living trust, he states that “Catcher in the Rye” will never be made into a Hollywood movie. Famous directors like Billy Wilder and Elia Kazan stalked Salinger to make it into a movie. It’s so amusing.
For any struggling writer, ‘Salinger’ is a must-see. The man is an icon and his work will forever be an inspiration to the literary world. Check out the Weinstein Company’s official trailer: http://youtu.be/9_zcPBcXeo4. Available on DVD December 10, 2013.