Rating: PG-13 Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Director: Shane Salerno
The author of The Catcher in the Rye would have been appalled by the new documentary Salinger — or maybe not. As director Shane Salerno (who has also coauthored with David Shields a 720-page biography on Salinger out this week) clearly points out in his film, J.D. Salinger was a calculating recluse, manipulating the media, and the public, by revealing bits of himself in ways that he could control.
Nine years in the making, the documentary features insights from members of Salinger's inner circle who previously have not spoken publicly, and it illuminates the impact world events had on the psyche of its titular literary figure, as well as those of us who identified so closely with his written works.
Salerno devotes much of the first half of his film to examining Salinger's Army service as a combatant and counterintelligence agent in World War II.
He was among the first U.S. soldiers to enter the liberated Nazi concentration camp Kaufering IV at the end of the war; he later told his daughter, Margaret, "You can never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live."
Must-see video: The Time I Met J.D. Salinger in 1969
Hence, it comes as no surprise that in the summer of 1945, he suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized at Nuremberg. Yet we realize just how much Salinger's war experience and subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder factored into his writing and his very being when in one especially poignant scene in the film, Paul Fitzgerald, who served in Salinger's infantry unit, admits something he's never even told his own wife: For years after the war, he imagined bombs landing in his front yard, or even in his living room.
Surely Salinger's enduring postwar pain is what his readers — many felt the writer was speaking directly to them — tapped into. More than 60 million copies of The Catcher in the Rye have been sold to this day, and the novel's huge success drove Salinger further and further into hiding. Salerno shares the stories of obsessed fans that tracked him down at his remote hilltop home in New Hampshire.
"I'm a fiction writer, not a counselor," Salinger would tell them. While Salerno's inclusion of Hollywood stars, including Martin Sheen offering commentary on the man of letters, seems questionable, Philip Seymour Hoffman's explanation of how sudden fame can feel oppressive is enlightening.
The women in Salinger's life figure prominently in the documentary. We learn that the author's first wife, Sylvia Welter, whom he met in Germany, had Nazi ties. The marriage fell apart after less than eight months, surely in no small part due to resistance from Salinger's family, who practiced Judaism. His second wife, Claire Douglas, the mother of his two children, Margaret and Matthew, eventually divorced Salinger, citing indifference.
We get a sense of the extent of Salinger's cruelty toward Claire in interviews with a woman who worked as a nanny for his children. And we understand how utterly controlling he was in interviews with his daughter, with whom Salinger cut off all communication when he learned she was writing a memoir, published in 2000.
The writer Joyce Maynard, who moved in with Salinger, at the time in his 50s, when she was just 18, suggests that he had pedophilic tendencies. Jean Miller, who was just 14 when she met a 30-year-old Salinger while vacationing on Daytona Beach, doesn't go so far, but his pattern of courting much younger women seems confirmed when Maynard recounts meeting his third wife and widow, Colleen O'Neill, who was 40 years his junior.
Packed with the perspectives of so many who knew and studied the author, along with a few previously unseen images and film clips, Salinger paints a portrait of an egotistical, troubled, complicated man who yearned for an innocence that would forever elude him.
It's the unveiling of the tiny details that make this documentary so fascinating, more so than its bombshell: Beginning in 2015, as directed by the estate he so deliberately left behind when he died in 2010 at the age of 91, Salinger will pull off his last and final reveal through the publication of five works that he completed after he stopped writing for anyone but himself in 1965.
Meg Grant is West Coast Editor for AARP The Magazine.
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