Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 3
Our star rating (1-5): 4
I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites
From a visual perspective painters make better movie subjects than writers, as witness the many striking scenes of Michelangelo at work set high up in the Sistine Chapel in The Agony and the Ecstasy. What can you show while a writer sits with a pen and blank paper, or a typewriter or a word processor? Director Danny Strong tries by placing his camera beneath the keys of his typewriter and shooting toward the ceiling, but you can do this only for a few short scenes. Despite such a problem, the film the director co-wrote with the author of his source, Kenneth Slawenski’s book J.D. Salinger: A Life, is better than most critics claim, but not nearly as good as the studio publicists make it out to be.
Like so many artists, Jerry (Nicholas Hoult), as the would-be writer calls himself, faces the strong opposition of his father, Sol Salinger (Victor Garber) who wants him to follow in his footsteps as a kosher butcher. Adding insult to injury, he asks, “What makes you think you have anything to say to people?”
Perhaps bolstered by the approval of his mother Marie (Hope Davis), Jerry enrolls at Columbia University in a creative writing class taught by Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), editor of Story Magazine. After an acerbic beginning, the pair form a warm relationship, Jerry gaining the self-confidence to submit his first short story, “The Young Folks,” to Story. Burnett sits on the manuscript until he is convinced that the story is not a fluke, that his student really does have talent. After one class he surprises Jerry by presenting to him the magazine and a check, proving that he is now a professional writer.
This proof means a lot to the young writer also because he had been attracted to a pretty girl (Zoey Deutch) at a night spot. Turning out to be Oona, daughter of the famous playwright Eugene O’Neill, Jerry had told her that he too was a writer. However, when asked if he had been published, the embarrassed Jerry had replied “No,” whereupon she had brushed him off. His second approach to her is more successful, the two going out together and then becoming engaged. He writes enough stories that he can acquire an agent Dorothy Olding (Sarah Paulson), with the result that several of them are accepted by various magazines.
Jerry and Burnett grow closer, frequently meeting at the mentor’s favorite café, Greenwich Village’s Caffe Reggio, where they discuss writing and the young man’s life. He has submitted a number of stories to The New Yorker, which are rejected, until his tale about a teenager named Holden Caulfield, “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” elicits the editors’ reply that if he makes the changes suggested in their appended notes, they would publish it. Burnett is so taken with Holden Caulfield that he continues to tell his pupil that the character is too big and important for just a short story—he demands a novel. Jerry resists both this suggestion and the New Yorker‘s demand for “improvements” to his story.
World War Two breaks out, and Jerry finds himself in the Army. Oona promises to wait for him, but while he is engaged in the savage fighting in Europe, she is swept off her feet by the great actor/comedian Charlie Chaplin, thus ditching her beaux. Embittered by her rejection, he buries himself in his writing while trying to stay alive. By now he has accepted his mentor’s plea to make Holden Caufield the subject of a novel, so, in a series of montages that hint at the violence of battles and the horrors of the concentration camps that his unit liberates, we see him writing the chapters of his novel in a tattered notebook he keeps close by. Later he will credit Holden Caufield for getting him through the war.
He returns to his parents, surprising them with a war bride that he had never mentioned in his correspondence. This marriage does not last long, and his plans for Burnett to publish an anthology of his short stories also end in failure. Burnett tries to explain that this is due to his lack of finances, but Jerry is so upset by this that he accuses his mentor of betraying him. He refuses thereafter all contact with him.
The film continues with Salinger’s struggle against PTSD, his writer’s block, his breakthrough with The New Yorker, and eventual publication and success of his novel Catcher in the Rye. The latter follows his study of Zen Buddhism under the tutelage of yogi Swami Nikhilananda (Bernard White), the latter apparently replacing Burnett in the writer’s life as mentor. By now he has taken a second wife, Lucy Boynton (Claire Dougla), who comment s upon his broken relationship with Burnett, “With all that meditation, you’d think you would’ve learned to forgive by now.”
Jerry finds that fame has its drawbacks, with numerous unhinged fans of the novel identifying so much with Holden Colfield that they continually harass the writer, one red capped fan exclaiming, “I am Holden Caufield!” Thus, Jerry flees NYC for his peaceful retreat in New Hampshire. He initially interacts with the local residents until one of them betrays him—a high school girl at that! He writes but refuses to publish. Dorothy Olding faithfully remains his link to the City, even though there will be no agent’s commission.
The reclusive author all along has been portrayed as a principled artist looking with disdain upon most of the compromising writers of his time. He preferred not to be published to fitting his submissions into a New Yorker-style of story. He rejected the blandishments of Hollywood money for the right to adapt Catcher… because of their tendency to mangle their sources (including his own short story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” made into the 1949 film My Foolish Heart.) Not even the news that the talented director Elia Kazan wants to secure the rights convinces him to relent, a refusal that he built into his estate and will, so that it is unlikely that we will ever see Holden on the big screen.
This film, suggesting that the author is the model for Holden, seems as close as we will get to a screen version of the novel. The film might leave one wondering what is the point of writing if the author refuses to share the work with an audience? Although we are meant to admire Salinger’s integrity in his struggle with The New Yorker, as well as his stating that a writer should write without expecting anything in return, I wonder if this is due entirely to selfless idealism? Might there be an element of hubris or feeling of being above the unwashed masses. I know I often feel this whenever I hear old Blue Eyes singing (and bragging) “I did it My Way.”
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the November issue of Visual Parables.