Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles

Grounded in actual theatrical history, Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" is a diffuse, intermittently insightful and charming tale about an important chapter in American culture. 
 
The feature revolves around the audacious staging of "Julius Caesar," in 1937, by a young brilliant director named Orson Welles, several years before he moved to Hollywood and helmed "Citizen Kane," considered by many the best American film ever made.
 
The uneven screenplay by Linklater's vet collaborators Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo is based on Robert Kaplow’s meticulously researched novel, which was original in the way that it placed a fictional character in the midst of a more realistic context.  
Linklater uses two narrative formats that are not always compatible, offering a look behind the scenes of the chaos, egos, and creativity in putting Shakespeare's tragedy on stage, alongside a romantic coming-of-age, saga. End result is a film that offers some incidental pleasures but lacks a strong center and takes too long to get going.
Bordering on impersonation, a strong performance by Brit newcomer Christian McKay, as the imperial and egomaniac Orson Welles, compensates for the slight and light turn by Zac Efron in the lead, showing that the handsome heartthrob may not be ready yet for a major dramatic turn. (The part calls for an actor of the caliber of the young Sean Penn or Matt Dillon or John Cusack).
Though different in approach, focus and style, "Me and Orson Welles" shares some similarities with Efron's Disney's "High School Musicals" in providing details about putting on a show.  The movie, which world-premiered to mixed response at the 2008 Toronto Film Fest (in Special Presentations), will be released by Free Styling in select cities November 25, 2009, but I doubt that many of Efron's fans would see this period picture.
It's unclear at first what attracted the gifted Linklater to this text, and the film's first half suffers from the same problems that hampered Tim Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock," a chronicle about a unique moment in American culture, the events surrounding Orson Welles' 1937 musical, which was shut down by government injunction due to the cast's alleged left-wing politics
There's also the danger that "Me and Orson Welles" would fall in between the cracks.  The film is not strong enough as a romantic coming-of-age saga, and it's not deep enough as a serious look at theatrical history.  Moreover, those familiar with the historical background and dramatis persona might find the film lacking as for them there is not much new in this version. On the other hand, those unfamiliar with the basic facts will be overwhelmed by the name-dropping of celebs (Alan Rudolph's "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" was impaired for the same reasons).
"This is the story of one week in my life," says Kaplow’s protagonist. "I was seventeen. It was the week I slept in Orson Welles's pajamas. It was the week I fell in love. It was the week I fell out of love."
 
Set in the world of New York theatre, the book and film center on a teenage student named Richard Samuels, who lucks his way into a minor role in the legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar,” re-imagined by the brilliant and impetuous Orson Welles.  In actuality, the youthful genius Welles was only four years older than Richard. However, in the movie, actor McKay looks and behaves like Richard's surrogate father-mentor, though admittedly, the real Welles always looked older than his age.
 
The week leading up to the opening night, whose date keeps changing, shows Welles to be cruel, manipulative, and calculated, staking his entire career on this risky production, but doing it all too consciously in order to put his name on the cultural radar. Meanwhile, the endlessly likable Richard wanders around, running errands, and socializing with everyone, from starlet to stagehand to producer and designer to Welles himself.
Rather unconvincing is the romantic triangle of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), the slightly older woman and unapologetically ambitious production assistant whom Richard courts, beds, and falls for, only to lose her to his boss Welles, and later on to David O. Selznick. 
However, despite problems, some of the vignettes are endearing and also revelatory. Allusions to David O. Selznick, another egocentric Hollywood producer, then in pre-production of his upcoming 1939 epos, "Gone With the Wind," hit their mark. 
 
And observations made by some of the film's other notable characters illuminate the theatrical ambience that prevailed in New York in the late 1930s. Among those are the Mercury's co-founder John Houseman (played by Eddie Marsan of “Happy-Go-Lucky” fame), who engages in endless arguments with Welles over artistic and personality issues.  Ben Chaplin plays Mercury Theater regular George Coulouris, Kelly Reilly portrays spiky diva Muriel Brassler, and James Tupper is the future star Joseph Cotton (who would appear in Welles' first two pictures, "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons").
 
The saga is nicely framed by crucial scenes between Richard and Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring writer he accidentally befriends at the Metropolitan Museum, and later helps in getting published, with the "New Yorker" no less.  Marked by smooth dialogue, these interactional scenes are vintage Linklater, vividly conveying youthful aspiration as well as romantic intellectualism, two of the helmer's most recurrent themes.
Richard's on and off-stage adventures are meant to show how he changed, or matured but, as played by Zac Efron, the transformation remains vague, and at the end, despite humiliation, getting fired by Welles right after opening night and being dumped by his love interest, Richard seems to be the same hopeful and romantic guy he has always been.
Ultimately, the film belongs to newcomer Christian McKay, an alumnus of RADA and the Royal Shakespeare Company, who immerses himself body, voice, and soul, in impersonating Orson Welles.
 
The movie was largely shot in the historic and restored Gaiety Theatre in Douglas, capital of the Isle of Man, which hosted the stage performances and backstage scenes at the Mercury Theatre, to which it bears remarkable resemblance. The New York streets were constructed on the back lot of Pinewood Studios, with interiors being filmed on Pinewood’s sound stages. Other key scenes were shot in various period locations in and around London, including the British Museum, which stands in for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bloomsbury Square and Crystal Palace Park.
 
Cast
 
Richard Samuels – Zac Efron
Sonja Jones – Claire Danes
Orson Welles – Christian McKay
Gretta Adle – Zoe Kazan
Joseph Cotten – James Tupper
Norman Lloyd – Leo Bill
John Houseman – Eddie Marsan
George Coulouris – Ben Chaplin
Sam Leve – Al Weaver
Muriel Brassler – Kelly Reilly
Vakhtangov – Iain McKee
Walter Ash – Simon Lee Phillips
Joe Holland – Simon Nehan
Lorelei Lathrop – Imogen Poots
Grover Burgess – Patrick Kennedy

Credits

 
A CinemaNX and Isle of Man Film presentation, in association with Framestore Features, of a CinemaNX and Detour Filmproduction. Produced by Richard Linklater, Marc Samuelson, Ann Carli.
Executive producers, Steve Christian, John Sloss, Steve Norris.
Co-producers, Holly Gent Palmo, Vince Palmo.
Directed by Richard Linklater.
Screenplay, Holly Gent Palmo, Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow.
Camera, Richard Pope.
Editor, Sandra Adair.
Music, Michael J. McEvoy; music supervisor, Marc Marot.
Production designer, Laurence Dorman.
Supervising art director, Bill Crutcher.
Art directors, David Doran, Stuart Rose; set decorator, Richard Roberts; costume designer, Nic Ede.
Sound, Colin Nicolson. Re-recording mixers, Tim Cavagin, Steve Single.
Visual effects supervisor, Rob Duncan; line producer, Richard Hewitt.
Associate producers, Jessica Parker, Sara Greene.
Assistant director, Matthew Penry-Davey.
Casting, Lucy Bevan.
 
Running time: 109 Minutes.

 

Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter

Comments

  1. Tom Gilchrist says:

    I saw this tonight and enjoyed it quite a bit. It's been a few years since I read up on Welles and that distance allowed me to experience some of the Welles lore anew. Christian McKay I feel deserves great credit in evoking him not only in voice and mannerism, but also with something more; the “feeling” (though it be make believe) of seeing Welles perform in his most inspired moments. Having seen such moments in his works where some record survives, film and recordings, we have here a means to project, somewhat usefully I think, what his unrecorded moments of genius may have felt like on the stage. So yes, impersonation on the one hand, but artful embodiment of a provocative character as well. There is a world here for McKay to walk around in and inhabit, a plot to satisfy, feats which other Welles “impersonators” I've seen have not successfully taken on. The film is a bit uneven, perhaps even flat at times, but therein lies what might arguably be called the Lanklater nod to reality. As a' clef, also, we also can't expect a teenage protagonist to record a victory, romantic or otherwise, against the historical Welles. The final shot above the museum entrance, and the ruminations of the Adler character, instead, say it all. The passing throng, passionate though unsung, which props up those (like Welles) who concern themselves with “theater history” may only shine bright, as here, for just a week. But what a week. And what a week worth ruminating on, especially in that Linklater way. Zac Efron's performance as one of the few fictitious characters is not problem-free, to be sure, but the direction of using someone less recognizable (to me at least) with inconsistent moments of brightness may have been the right way to go, despite uneven results. It fits the overall feel of the film. A more provocative actor might not have “disappeared” so appropriately in the film's final moments.

    Finally, I left the theater wishing I could go back and see this Caesar, and mourning its loss to time.

    Thanks for the insightful review. I enjoyed picking up some of the details I'd otherwise have missed, and some issues with the film I might otherwise not have thought about.

    TG

Speak Your Mind

*