I have been fascinated with Orson Welles since I was a boy. I had heard the recording of his famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast at an early age, and one of the first films I remember thinking hard about was Citizen Kane. Genuine prodigies, which is how I would categorize Mr. Welles, are few and far between. They can be difficult, but if one can move beyond the unpleasantness, there is a good chance you will see true wonder. No doubt Richard Linklatter saw a spark or two in him as well with his latest outing, Me and Orson Welles. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Robert Kaplow. Mr. Linklater does it justice.
Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a 17 year old schoolboy, serendipitously strolls past the soon to be opened Mercury Theater in New York. The year is 1937 and Orson Welles, only 22 at the time, was working with John Houseman on a modern production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In a once in a lifetime opportunity, Richard is hired on the spot, no pay of course, to play the part of Lucius. Sounds great, but the play is set to open in one week, the cast is no where near ready and Richard is not an actor. He does have good looks and some raw talent, enough for him to hang on in this new competitive world of egos and broken wings.
The film chronicles that chaotic week as the company waits and waits for Orson to show up and provide direction or humiliation; depending on his mood. Richard’s guide inside the Mercury is Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a perky and ambitious blonde who is focused on meeting David O. Selznick and movin’ on up. The various cast and crew members are working hard and sense success, but are frustrated with all the changes Orson throws at them; to say nothing of his temper tantrums.
Mr. Linklater is way beyond Slacker and Dazed and Confused here. I felt transported back in time with the amazing work done to recreate, in rich detail, New York in late ’30’s. That alone is no small feat. But the filmmakers went well above and beyond, bringing to life every aspect of this wonderful story. Christian McKay as Orson Welles gets so much right. The orotund voice, the dashing clothes, Cuban cigars and most importantly the attitude. Orson embodies the Mercury and never lets anyone forget it. Mr. McKay’s Orson Welles is clever as well as menacing. Orson is brilliant and original when writing or directing, but he is falls back on a rote dialogue when he needs to motivate his company of players. Near the end of the film George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), who plays Mark Antony, has a total meltdown on opening night just before the curtain goes up. Welles orders up a bottle of scotch to fortify George and gives him the same pep talk he gave to an eavesdropping Richard just the day before. Welles always seems to get his way.
Pic is strong on all technical aspects, especially Dick Pope’s cinematography, which succeeds in giving us both a film and a play visual language in the same movie. The crew had to blend their shoots in London, New York and on the Isle of Man into one rich tapestry. All supporting performances are well played. One of the things that stood out for me was how the actors cultivated two personas; one for on screen and the other for their on stage performance.
Mr. Efron looks to be someone to watch in the future. He combines cool with an artsy flair. Richard is taken with Sonja and puts his new found career possibilities at risk to try and win her. In the end he learns many lessons of life and love. I would recommend Me and Orson Welles to moviegoers who like period pieces that are smart and have historic roots.
The official Me and Orson Welles web site is here. Photos courtesy of Cinema NX. Follow this link to read a brief history of the Mercury Theater and Orson Welles.