April 6, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Philippe Falardeau
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and briefly in Washington, D.C., during the years 1995 and 1996, the dramatic film “My Salinger Year” features a predominantly white group of people (with one black person and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.
Culture Clash: A grad school dropout, who wants to become a professional writer, gets a job as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent and breaks the agency’s cardinal rule of how to answer Salinger’s fan mail.
Culture Audience: “My Salinger Year” will appeal primarily to fans of co-star Sigourney Weaver and people interested in movies about the New York literary world in the 1990s, but the movie lacks credibility in many crucial areas and portrays its main female characters as stereotypes.
The dramatic film “My Salinger Year” (written and directed by Philippe Falardeau) is based on Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir of the same name, but the movie comes across as a fantasy of what women experience in the book publishing world. The female protagonist is an aspiring writer, but she does almost no work on her writing and instead spends most of the story obsessing over famed reclusive author J.D. Salinger and his fan mail, after she becomes an assistant to Salinger’s literary agent. The irony of her spending so much time reading Salinger’s fan mail is that she hasn’t read any of Salinger’s work, but she’s foolishly arrogant enough to think she can judge how his fans should respond to his work.
“My Salinger Year,” which takes place from 1995 to 1996, is one of those “bubble” biopics where the protagonist Joanna Rakoff (played by Margaret Qualley) lives in a privileged bubble mentality. Joanna, who is in her early 20s when this story takes place, expects to get “discovered” as a writer without actually writing anything substantial. She thinks the rules don’t really apply to her in her office job. And she never acknowledges that people who are less privileged than she is have it much harder to get the opportunities that are handed to her because she’s young and has a certain level of physical attractiveness. Her idea of “suffering” is living in a Brooklyn apartment that doesn’t have a kitchen sink.
Joanna is intended to be a stereotypical wide-eyed, charming ingenue in this movie. But her actions show that she’s actually quite self-centered and dishonest—not all the time, but enough for viewers to see that beneath the pretty surface is someone who’s kind of a spoiled brat. Joanna is a dreamer who doesn’t like being reminded that people have bigger problems than she does. As such, the movie tries too hard to be whimsical by showing many fantasy sequences of Salinger’s fans speaking to the camera, as if they’re also speaking to Joanna.
Joanna doesn’t come from a rich family, but she aspires to be accepted into the sophisticated and educated social circles of people in Manhattan who have servants and read The New Yorker, her favorite magazine. She isn’t a snob, per se, because a snob’s sense of superiority comes from thinking about other people as being “lower-class,” whereas Joanna doesn’t really think about other people at all, except for what other people can do for her.
In the beginning of the movie, Joanna says in a voiceover: “I grew up in a quiet, suburban town just north of New York. On special occasions, my dad would take me into the city and we would get dessert at the Waldorf or the Plaza. I loved watching the people around us. I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to write novels and speak five languages and travel. I didn’t want to be ordinary. I wanted to be extraordinary.”
The operative phrase here, which explains Joanna’s mindset and personality, is “I want.” She wants all these glamorous fantasies for herself, but actually doesn’t want to put in a lot of the hard work to achieve those dreams. You don’t learn five languages just by imagining yourself doing it. And that’s the same attitude that she has about her career goal of becoming a famous and respected writer. Her only experience at this point is having a few pieces published in The Paris Review.
As Joanna says in a voiceover in the beginning of the movie, she was a grad student at the University of California at Berkeley when she decided to visit her childhood best friend Jenny (played by Seána Kerslake) in New York City for a few days. Joanna’s original plan was to return to Berkeley, where her boyfriend Karl Ansari (played by Hamza Haq) was waiting for her. Instead, Joanna explains, “something shifted.”
As far as Joanna is concerned, she can’t be a real writer without living in New York. And so, she never went back to Berkeley, she dropped out of grad school, and decided to move permanently to New York. And she never bothered to tell Karl that she was breaking up with him and why. So selfish. Karl knew that Joanna wanted to stay in New York, but he was misled into thinking that they would have a long-distance relationship. He eventually figured out that Joanna wanted to end the relationship when she stopped being in contact with him.
Joanna is never seen in Berkeley, as if she and the movie want to erase that part of her life. Instead, Joanna slides right into an easy living arrangement in New York City, where she becomes the roommate of Jenny and Jenny’s boyfriend Brett in the fall of 1995. Joanna isn’t a freeloader because she looks for a job by signing up with an employment agency. But, as can only happen in a movie with a privileged protagonist like this one, she gets a job right away by lying her way into it.
Joanna experiences no real struggles, no series of rejections that young, inexperienced writers often have to face when they’re just starting out in the workforce. (And experienced writers get rejected too.) No, that’s not to supposed to happen to Joanna, because the “My Salinger Year” filmmakers insult viewers’ intelligence by making it look like all you have to do is be a young, attractive female of a certain race to have people going out of their way to help you.
Joanna quickly gets an administrative assistant job at the fictional A&F Literary Management by lying that she knows how to type 60 words per minute. In reality, Joanna doesn’t know how to type. And she’s never given a typing test before she’s hired.
Joanna’s lack of typing skills is an indication that Joanna was too lazy to learn how to type during all of her years in college when she would’ve greatly benefited from having typing skills. Viewers have to assume that Joanna got other people to type her college assignments for her. More privilege on display.
Even when Joanna’s prickly and demanding boss Margaret (played by Sigourney Weaver) finds out later in the story that Joanna can’t type (due to all the mistakes that Joanna makes when she tries to type), Joanna doesn’t get fired. Why? Because Joanna told another big lie in the interview: When Margaret says she doesn’t like to have assistants who are aspiring writers, Joanna tells Margaret that she’s not an aspiring writer. Margaret’s dislike of having aspiring writers work for her is because she thinks wannabe writers give more priority to working on their own material instead of doing the work they were hired to do for the agency.
Margaret’s most famous client is reclusive author J.D. Salinger, whose main claim to fame is his influential 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” a tale of a rebellious teenager named Holden Caulfield. Salinger’s last published work was the novella “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which The New Yorker published in 1965. Joanna knows how famous Salinger is, but she’s never read any of his work. It’s a secret that Joanna only admits to a few trusted people in her life because she doesn’t want to look ignorant when it comes to literature.
In real life, Rakoff worked for Phyllis Westberg at the literary agency Harold Ober Associates, the inspiration behind the fictional Margaret character and A&F Literary Management in this movie. Westberg aslo represented Salinger in real life, and she was eventually promoted to chief of Harold Ober Associates in 1998. Because “My Salinger Year” takes place only in 1995 and 1996, this promotion is not depicted in the movie.
During the job interview, Margaret (who refers to Salinger as “Jerry”) tells Joanna that Jerry isn’t a problem but his people (in other words, his other gatekeepers and his obsessive fans) are a problem. Margaret warns Joanna: “You must never, ever give out his address … Remember, there’s no shortage of college graduates who want this job. Be prepared to work long hours.” Joanna acts like an eager beaver who will do whatever Margaret wants, so Joanna gets hired on the spot and is told her first day as an A&F employee will be on January 8, 1996.
Also in the room during the interview is a high-ranking A&F executive named Daniel (played by Colm Feore), who’s about the same age as Margaret. He seems to have enough of a comfort level with Margaret where he can call her a “tyrant” while she’s in the room. When Joanna is hired and gushes that she’s “honored and thrilled,” Daniel says cynically, “No need to be honored. Thrilled, maybe.” Joanna is then seen looking starry-eyed and hopeful as she walks through the hallways of A&F Literary Management to look at the photo-portrait wall hangings of famous authors who were the company’s past and present clients, such as Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.
During her first day on the job, Joanna meets three other employees who have lower rankings than Margaret and Daniel. Hugh (played by Brían F. O’Byrne), who takes care of legal matters such as contracts and correspondence, is the employee whom Joanna interacts with the most, other than Margaret. Hugh tells Joanna that he used to have her job when he started out at the company. On her first day on the job, Joanna also meets literary agents Max (played by Yanic Truesdale) and Lisa (played by Xiao Sun), who seem to be in this movie as token people of color, since their roles are not substantial to the story.
Hugh tells Joanna on her first day on the job, as he hands her a stack of Salinger’s fan mail, that Salinger does not want to receive any mail from fans and other people requesting things from him. Instead, Hugh tells Joanna that the company’s policy is that people who write to Salinger are sent a standard form letter explaining that Salinger does not accept any mail. The form letters that are sent out must be identical. Sending a personal reply is strictly forbidden. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that Joanna is going to break that rule.
Hugh also explains to Joanna that all mail addressed to Salinger has to be opened and read as a safety precaution. Hugh makes a reference to Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon who had a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” with him when Chapman was arrested in December 1980 right after the murder. John Hinkley Jr., who tried to assassinate then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan in March 1981, was also obsessed with “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Hugh says not all of Salinger’s fan mail comes from unknown people of questionable mental stability, because some famous and highly respected people sometimes try to contact Salinger by mail too. If the mail looks like it should be brought to a superior’s attention at the company, whoever reads the mail should do that. Otherwise, the mail has to be shredded. Needless to say, Joanna breaks that rule too, because she steals a lot of the fan mail to take home and read.
After moving to New York, Joanna doesn’t waste time in finding a new boyfriend. His name is Don (played by Douglas Booth), and he’s about five or six years older than Joanna. They met while he was working at a socialist bookstore. A love of reading and being aspiring writers are two of the few things that Joanna and Don have in common.
Don sees himself as a die-hard socialist, and he thinks a magazine like The New Yorker is a bourgeois joke that glorifies greed and capitalism. Considering that The New Yorker is Joanna’s favorite magazine and she has aspirations to lead a high-society, jet-set lifestyle, viewers can easily see how incompatible Joanna and Don are. Later on in the story, there are issues of control, respect and emotional manipulation that affect their relationship.
When Jenny drops hints to Joanna that Joanna has overstayed her welcome at Jenny’s apartment, Joanna decides to move in with Don after not knowing him for very long. Don and Joanna go apartment hunting together, and Don impulsively decides that they should live in a run-down apartment in Brooklyn that’s within their price range, even though they can barely afford the rent on their meager salaries. However, Don doesn’t want his name on the lease because he says he has bad credit (red flag warning signs right there), so Joanna is the one whose name is on the lease. In other words, she’ll be stuck paying the rent if the relationship doesn’t work out.
It isn’t until after she signs the lease that Joanna notices that the apartment doesn’t have a kitchen sink, and she’s not happy about it. Don tells her that it’s no big deal because they can wash dishes in the bathtub. Joanna is determined to convince herself that somehow this is all part of her fantasy of being an aspiring writer in New York. But viewers can easily see where this is going to go, considering that Joanna is the type of person who wants to hang out at the Waldorf Astoria so she can eat overpriced desserts. (And it’s exactly what she does later in the movie.)
While Don actually does a lot of writing (he’s working on his first novel), Joanna spends her days doing secretary work for Margaret and spends her nights reading Salinger’s fan mail. Joanna shows no passion for writing her own work at all. She doesn’t even have writer’s block as an excuse. And it isn’t until very late in the story, when she has an epiphany about her aimless life, that she finally gets around to reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”
There are some very mid-1990s references in the movie, such as Margaret’s skepticism about using the Internet. Margaret is so “old school” that she doesn’t even want her office to have computers, until she finally relents and gets one computer that she looks at it as if it’s an invention from outer space. And because digital recorders didn’t exist back then, Joanna has to use a cassette dictaphone to transcribe Margaret’s recordings.
The Margaret character might be compared to the tyrannical Miranda Priestly character (played by Meryl Streep), the fashion magazine boss in the much more entertaining 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” which was also based on a memoir written by a former administrative assistant in the New York City publishing industry. Just like Miranda has a brusque attitude toward her assistants, so too does Margaret. However, Margaret has more heart and is not as over-the-top as Miranda with her domineering ways.
Unlike Miranda, Margaret doesn’t take pleasure in demeaning her underlings. In fact, when Margaret finds out that Joanna lied about knowing how to type, and Joanna commits other betrayals of trust, Margaret doesn’t fire her. (Miranda Priestly would never show that type of mercy.) Weaver’s nuanced portrayal of Margaret is as a boss who actually wants to mentor someone, as long as that person is an aspiring literary agent, not an aspiring writer.
As a character, Margaret is a lot more believable than Joanna, although they are both written as stereotypes of women in the workplace: the battle-axe boss and the inexperienced ingenue. Viewers of “My Salinger Year” might find Joanna tolerable because of Qualley’s sympathetic portrayal of this character. Joanna looks like an innocent beauty, and that’s why people easily forgive her, even though you know that people wouldn’t be so forgiving if she had a different physical appearance. Time and time again, Joanna is given many chances after she messes up or is caught in a big lie.
Even when Joanna gets her head out of her privileged bubble to acknowledge that other people have more emotional pain than she does, there’s an air of “ulterior motive” about it. When Margaret experiences a tragedy and takes time off from work, Joanna shows up unannounced at Margaret’s apartment with a bouquet of flowers and Margaret’s favorite soup. It’s a compassionate thing to do, but if we’re being honest, it’s also trying to impress the boss.
And when Joanna decides to accept her ex-boyfriend Karl’s invitation to meet with him while he’s in Washington, D.C., it’s only after Margaret tasks Joanna to spy on Salinger when Salinger goes to Washington to meet with a publisher named Clifford Bradbury (played by Matt Holland), who might publish Salinger’s next work. In other words, Joanna is only in Washington because her job is paying for the trip, not because she’s making any personal sacrifices to see Karl again. And she only shows remorse for how she treated Karl after she starts having problems with Don.
Yes, there’s a scene in the movie where Joanna spies on J.D. Salinger. The movie goes to great lengths to show Salinger (played by Tim Post) as a mysterious figure when Joanna sees him in person. His face is obscured or he’s shown only from the back. Salinger also talks to Joanna briefly over the phone, and she is predictably star-struck. Joanna is flattered and somewhat giggly when Margaret tells her that Salinger likes Joanna.
There’s a creepy subtext to all of that if viewers of this movie know that a grandfather-age Salinger had real-life predatory ways with women in their late teens and early 20s, according to author Joyce Maynard, who detailed her youthful experiences with Salinger in her 1998 memoir “At Home in the World.” Since that book was published a few years after the story takes place in “My Salinger Year,” it’s understandable that the movie doesn’t mention that Salinger wasn’t so reclusive after all when it came to trying to seduce his young female fans.
Speaking of older men who prey on younger, less-experienced women, “My Salinger Year” ignores the reality that someone like Joanna would definitely have older men in the publishing industry trying to abuse their power by pressuring her to go on dates with them or other forms of sexual harassment. The movie also doesn’t acknowledge that there’s rampant sexism in the media/book publishing industry. The “My Salinger Year” movie is very much a fantasy version of what a woman like Joanna would experience in real life.
Even though in the beginning of the movie, Joanna shares fond childhood memories of time that she spent with her father while they visited New York City, “My Salinger Year” oddly never mentions Joanna’s family again. Viewers don’t know if her parents are still alive, and if they are still alive, what her parents think about Joanna dropping out of grad school to pursue a writing career in New York City. It’s an example of how the movie treats Joanna as an incomplete sketch in its relentless push of the ingenue narrative for her.
“My Salinger Year” has brief portrayals of a few other authors in addition to Salinger. Judy Blume (played by Gillian Doria) has a contentious meeting with Margaret at the A&F offices. Joanna is in awe of Judy because she read Judy Blume books when she was a child, so Joanna thinks she’s some kind of Judy Blume expert. And like a know-it-all, Joanna blurts out her opinions to Margaret on how Margaret mishandled the meeting with Judy, even though Joanna wasn’t even in the meeting.
In an earlier part of the movie, Joanna meets author Rachel Cusk (played Hayley Kezber), while Rachel is having lunch at a restaurant with Margaret, Daniel, Daniel’s wife Helen (played by Lise Roy) and Max. Joanna is there because Daniel happened to see Joanna walking outside and invited her into the restaurant to join them. When Margaret sees that Joanna and Rachel have a friendly rapport with each other, Margaret shows her spiteful side by coldly dismissing Joanna from the luncheon and telling her to go back to the office and work.
One of the most annoying aspects of “My Salinger Year” is how it portrays Salinger’s fans who write to him as sad, lonely people who act as if their lives will be ruined if Salinger doesn’t reply to their mail. These fans are all fictional characters in the movie, but that doesn’t make this movie’s depiction of them any less insulting to Salinger’s fan base. Joanna reads the fan letters in a mostly “holier than thou” way, but she admits that some of the letters affect her emotionally because she can sometimes relate to the fans who are aspiring writers.
But since the movie makes the fans who get screen time look like they might be mentally unhinged, sure enough, one of these fans (a teenage girl, played by Romane Denis) ends up showing stalker-like behavior when Joanna makes the mistake of writing back condescending, unsolicited advice about being a writer. The teenage fan unexpectedly shows up at the A&F offices to angrily confront Joanna. It’s one of the few times that Joanna gets a much-needed reality check about how her cavalier actions can have serious consequences.
The Salinger fan who gets the most screen time is a man in his late teens or early 20s named Fernell Breault (played by Théodore Pellerin), who’s from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Joanna becomes so fixated on his letters, that the movie’s fantasy sequences of Fernell evolve from him talking to the camera while he’s in North Carolina to actually appearing in front of Joanna and talking to her while she’s on a train, as he appears to her in a hallucination. So pretentious.
Far from being a female empowerment story, “My Salinger Year” shows that Joanna willingly mutes her own voice as a writer for almost the entire movie so that she can be second-fiddle to a famous male writer. This movie isn’t about Joanna being a writer. It’s about her answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail.
Joanna moved to New York City to become a writer, but while she’s living in New York, not once does the movie give an indication about what type of writing Joanna is capable of doing in her free time, except toward the end of the movie when she mentions some new poetry that she’s written. However, the poetry isn’t shown or spoken at all in the movie. Nor is there any indication that she’s good enough to be a professional writer. (Answering fan mail doesn’t count.)
Predictably, Joanna expects to be given a shortcut to her work getting published, but there isn’t a scene of her actually working at writing. It’s all such a wasted opportunity for this movie to show a young aspiring writer developing her craft. Instead, she’s portrayed as a fickle and flighty individual who would much rather wallow in fantasies and read someone else’s fan mail. And the title of this movie/Rakoff’s memoir says it all: Joanna’s own story isn’t told without using the name of a famous male author.
IFC Films released “My Salinger Year” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021. The movie’s title in the U.K. and Ireland is “My New York Year.”