Few books of the post-World War II years had a more profound impact on the American culture than J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” But Salinger found himself in a predicament shared by many creative artists that scored a masterpiece too early in their careers: what do you do for an encore? In the case of Salinger, there was no great second act – instead, the author’s output dwindled dramatically following the 1951 release of his best seller, until he stopped publishing altogether in 1965.
Shane Salerno’s documentary tries to make sense of Salinger’s life, and the result is entertaining and well-researched, if a bit wobbly at points. The film works best tracing Salinger’s earlier years, when few people were quick to spot his literary talents, much to Salinger’s chagrin. Indeed, Salinger’s endless efforts to get his short stories published in The New Yorker offers a lesson in the value of dogged persistence. Also worthwhile here is insight into Salinger’s years as a soldier in World War II – which included involvement in the D-Day landing and the liberation of Dachau. For this section, Salerno uncovered some extraordinary photos and the only known film footage of Salinger in his Army service.
Salinger’s distinctive problems with women are also traced at great depth, and one can easily spot the inspiration for the fumbling of his celebrated creation Holden Caulfield with Salinger’s own problems. Most notable was Salinger’s doomed pursuit of the beautiful Oona O’Neill (the teenage daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill) and his shock over her marriage to a significantly older Charlie Chaplin – a hurt that Salinger was never able to heal – as well as his mysterious brief marriage to a German woman that he met in Europe during his Army service. (She might have been a Nazi, an odd choice for the Jewish Salinger to take as a wife.)
The postwar years’ section of this film proves to be a bit less compelling, if only because the viewer never gets to experience the power of Salinger’s command of the language. There is a lot of talk about his writing, but the words never get to reach the screen. Even worse, Salerno lapses into hokey re-enactments and talking head commentary from a wealth of subjects that had little or no direct contact with the man – including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, of all people – in order to fill in gaps that cannot be covered with audio interviews or film footage.
Still, this film provides some wonderful surprises, including never-before-seen photos of Salinger going out and about during his years of alleged seclusion and the news that the author left behind a large amount of unpublished work that will be seeing the light of day in the near future.
For those captivated by Salinger’s writing, this intelligent and often invigorating film provides fine insight into his world.