Writer-director Shane Salerno’s controversial two-hour “Salinger” documentary, which hits theaters September 6 via the Weinstein Company, debuted at the Telluride Film festival with a surprise Labor Day screening this week–to mixed reviews. The Weinsteins have also added the doc to the Toronto International Film Festival lineup, which means a total of seven films showing there. See the Telluride press conference moderated by Ken Burns with Salerno and A.E. Hotchner via Skype, and co-writer David Shields, cinematographer Buddy Squyres, and old friend Jean Miller, who met the author when she was 14, below.
The doc, which took Salerno (co-writer of Oliver Stone’s “Savages”) over nine years to complete, is a thorough portrait of the enigmatic, reclusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” taking us through his prep school days and early short-story writing–his goal to be published in The New Yorker had to wait until after World War II. He landed in France on D-Day and served 299 days in active combat before V-Day, writing “Catcher in the Rye” by the side of the road when he could. After witnessing the horrors of the holocaust at a concentration camp and doing espionage work in post-war Germany hunting down Nazis, he brought home a Nazi war bride to his Jewish father, but the marriage was annulled after a month.
Salinger died at age 91 in January 2010, and hadn’t published a work since 1965. Included among the interviewees are Salinger’s close friends and colleagues who have never spoken about him before, and archival footage of the writer. Other notable personalities talking about Salinger and his cultural impact are Philip Seymour Hoffman, A.E. Hotchner, John Guare, Edward Norton, Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal, among others.
The film suffers from too many reenactments, many of them ham-fisted, of the author writing in his bunker tapping away on a Royal typewriter, etc. The book also omits any readings or quotes from his work in favor of a psychological approach to the stories and novel. And the score is overly dramatic and portentous. (Here’s my full review with Joyce Maynard’s comments about Salinger as a serial predator of young girls, and Eric Kohn’s Indiewire review.)
Astonishingly, several publishers passed on “Catcher in the Rye” before Little Brown released the literary sensation in 1951. Salinger made the cover of Time in 1961. The novel has sold 60 million copies and still sells 250,000 copies a year. Three murderers have cited the book as an influence on their actions. Fame and fortune soon drove the reclusive author–described as “the Howard Hughes of his day,” to retreat to a remote mountain top aerie in Cornish, New Hampshire, where several photographers and writers tracked him down over the years. “I am not a counselor,” he told one of them. “I am a fiction writer.”
After one awful Hollywood movie “My Foolish Heart,” based on the story “Uncle Wiggley in Connecticut,” Salinger turned his back on Hollywood, from Billy Wilder to Jerry Lewis, and literally closed the door in Elia Kazan’s face, according to one story. The big reveal in the two-hour five minute movie is the fact that Jerry Salinger had stored in his safe at his home in New Hampshire–as reported by one-time lover, author Joyce Maynard– a series of novels. It turns out they will be published by his literary foundation, created in 2008, in prescribed order from 2015 through 2020, including full family chronicles of the Glass and Caulfield families. No film version of “Catcher in the Rye” will ever be permitted.
They also include a novella about his counterintelligence work after World War II, as well as a love story from that period based on his first marriage. And there’s a religious manual about his beloved Vedanta.