The book was very good, please don't get me wrong,
but the very young Stephen Soderbergh's unauthorized,
little-known, and briefly-released-and-immediately-
withdrawn film version (after a threatened suit from
J.D. Salinger), was a refreshing if incomprehensible
re-interpretation of teenage rebel Holden Caulfield's
existential weekend crisis.
The film starred a 15-year-old Richard Gere and expanded
on Holden's adventures in New York. Soderbergh had Holden
making sudden leaps to Miami, Hawaii, and even Paris, France
(as an overnight stowaway on the Concorde with a Navajo medicine
man he met in Central Park). One question Soderbergh still refuses
to answer is whether these trips were meant to be metaphorical
or whether Holden was meant to have actually stowed away
on the SST. Either way, the leaps are unnecessarily jarring but
foreshadowed the director's esoteric choices later in his career.
Though Salinger called the role of Holden "essentially unactable,"
Gere is compelling as a mumbling adolescent sort-of Clifford Irving
in a checkerboard porkpie hat (which Soderbergh changed
from a red hunting cap).
Soderbergh also gave Gere's Holden a brown belt in karate, a skill he
puts to good use in pummeling Maurice the pimp at a cocktail party
and rescuing Sunny the prostitute for a midnight swim in the East River
and a nude pizza breakfast atop the Statue of Liberty.
The experimental collaborative score by Miles Davis and Bob Dylan is
a hit-or-miss affair, with Dylan's early sneering surrealistic metaphors
and Davis soaring dissonance a distraction at times, particularly during
the periods of voice-over. It was a typically baffling Soderbergh choice
to have not Gere himself do the non-stop voice-over (an odd reading
of the book itself in cut-up William Burroughsesque fashion), but rather
Frank Sinatra with a slightly French accent.
Another peculiar choice for Holden's sister Phoebe was a very young
Hayley Mills, who is not entirely successful in covering up her English
accent and who keeps sliding off the merry-go-round in the seminal
scene. Other roles were played by Ginger Rogers and Don Knotts
as Holden's parents (who were shown only from the knees down),
Ricky Nelson as Ward Stradlater, Elizabeth Taylor as Holden's drug-
dealing girl friend Jane Gallagher, Marlon Brando as Mr. Antolini,
and Jean-Paul Sartre as himself in a half-hour scene in Times Square
in which Holden and Jean-Paul discuss basketball, space flight, and the
future of vegetarianism.
Soderbergh was able to secure the talents of these huge stars with
very little pay but the promise of being in a film version of such a
classic novel, though many of them were misled into believing
Salinger had approved of the project. I was fortunate enough to
have been invited to one of the only three screenings of the film
before Salinger's suit forced the destruction of every copy of the film.
I was quite disappointed when I heard that Salinger had squashed the
film without, I believe, even seeing it. It was not a movie that could be
accused of being "too true to the book" certainly, but if the viewer
who went open-minded into the theater (or into the sort of modified
alley where I saw it) would have found a unque experience that would
not soon be forgotten. Salinger later was asked what he thought
of what Soderbergh had done to his book. Salinger answered,
"He didn't do anything to it. It's still right there on the shelf."