ME AND ORSON WELLES
(United Kingdom, 2008)
Written by: Holly Gent Palmo, Vincent Palmo
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Cast: Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chapman, Zoe Kazan, James Tupper, Eddie Marsan
It's somehow inevitable that Richard Linklater would eventually latch on to Orson Welles as a subject--each filmmaker made their respective directorial debuts at a criminally young age, instantly forging a personal and independent sensibility, remaining prolific while constantly experimenting with cinematic technique and form, and not above hanging up the auteur cap once in a while to play in more commercial sandboxes. But whereas Linklater seems to have had no trouble getting his eclectic body of work produced, Welles spent the better part of his career shilling for cash to finance projects that were either compromised beyond his bold intentions or never completed for a variety of reasons, some entirely his fault.
The Welles we meet here is a long way from corpulent, Mephisto-bearded patrician of Vivitar commercials and four-walled Nostradamus documentaries: it's 1937, and the tireless multi-hyphenate prodigy has, at the ripe old age of 22, already polarized the New York theatrical world with a "voodoo" version of "Macbeth" (actually, a groundbreaking collaboration between FDR's Federal Theatre Project and The American Negro Theater of Harlem) and a truncated radio adaptation of "Hamlet" (which eliminated the "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy!). He's about to embark on a radical take on "Julius Caesar", one which will modernize the themes to (then) contemporary fascist dress, eschew the traditional stage ornamentations, ramp up the violence, and run a mere 90 minutes. A tall order for what would be Broadway's first-ever Shakespearean production, which Welles proudly boasts to anyone within earshot.
But it's the Me of the title through which this formative period of Welles' career is recounted. Based upon the novel by Robert Kaplow, it's the kinda-sorta true story of a 17-year old New Jersey dreamer, Richard Samuels (Efron), who's bored with the hive mind of high school and who, like Welles, aspires to conquer the Manhattan stage--to the chagrin of his single mother and grandmother, of course. In his spare hours, he frequents a music shop for inspiration, where he strikes up a friendship with shy Gretta (Kazan), who hopes to one day sell her short stories to The New Yorker.
Outside of the newly refurbished Mercury Theatre on 41st Street, Richard comes upon Welles' (McKay) announcement of his avante-garde, modernist interpretation of "Caesar", as it will be displayed on the marquee. Through a happy accident, Richard is invited to join Welles' troupe in the bit part of Lucius, one that'll require him to learn the ukelele and sing...
Sucked into the whirlwind pace of Welles' world, Richard is inspired by his newfound mentor's bravado (who is only five years older than he is!), but also intimidated by his ruthless and unpredictable temper. He becomes enamoured with "older woman" Sonja (Danes), the production's secretary and Welles' sometime girlfriend--a secret everyone in the troupe conspires to hide from his pregnant wife, Virginia. Richard accepts a bet from actor "Joe" Cotton (Tupper--an uncanny lookalike) that he'll get her into bed before anyone else, and engineers a date. But he finds that while Sonja is a willing partner, her first duty is to herself and her own career advancement, and she's using Welles to get to producer David O. Selznick.
When Welles betrays her, Richard confronts him on the subject, and is promptly fired. Then re-hired. Such is life with Welles, who'll charm anyone and promise anything to secure a historic opening night...
Me And Orson Welles is hardly the first backstage fantasia about life with Welles--in the last decade and a half we've seen Cradle Will Rock, RKO 481, and even Ed Wood. What's unique about this one is its source: author Kaplow was inspired by a backstage shot of a young bit player next to Welles, and conceived this "what if" scenario about the cruel realities of showbiz (during the post-premiere Q&A, we were told the boy in the photo is one Arthur Anderson, still living and in his 90s).
Linklater maintains a breezy tone with the expected Noises Off antics as the days lead up the big premiere, tempered with the very real incidents of anti-Semitism and the misogyny of the era. As with his delightful mainstream hit School Of Rock, the idealistic young leads are dealt a hard life lesson without the usually treacley sentiment--in the end, everyone's better off for having had the experience at all. It's also a rare period drama that's a lot less earnest and grandiose than most its type (unlike Tim Robbins' Cradle will Rock, Efron and Kazan don't walk off into a lament over Andrew Lloyd Webber).
Never much of a visual stylist, Linklater keeps things decidely non-fancy and avoids the monochrome grit of most period recreations in favour of a warm Rockwellian palette and colourful costumes that could almost have come from Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. Using vintage production drawings, audio recordings, and eyewitness testimony of the event, Welles' unique take on "Caesar" has been restaged with a high degree of accuracy, on sets constructed on, amazingly, The Isle Of Man (also, London's Pinewood Studios and New York locations). According to the film's production notes, the nearest replica of the Mercury Theatre that could be found was in England, with many of the extras drafted from The Royal Shakespearean Company.
Much will be made of the presence of teen sensation Efron, who, for those sleeping under a rock, is something of a tween icon these days based upon his association with Disney's High School Musical franchise. While no match for Welles at the same age (as of this writing, he's just shy of 22), he's perfectly fine here in what is essentially the ingenue role--methinks he might be a little too elfin and contemporary but he's an agreeable, if slight, presence. Efron seemed genuinely thrilled in the post-screening Q&A to have been offered the opportunity to show some range, and he accomplishes just that.
As an adult performer, Danes continues to win me over. She's very good here in a potentially unlikeable role: Sonja is hardly the sweetheart Richard thinks she is--while manipulative and self-serving, she's at least honest about it.
But the film soars because of newcomer McKay, having previously portrayed the man on stage, who perfectly embodies Welles' brilliance, charisma, and fearless ego. In a standout scene, Welles' segues into a passage from his The Magnificent Ambersons script during a live radio drama opposite Les Tremayne, eliciting equal parts awe and contempt from the cast and crew--a perfect Wellesian contradiction. McKay follows in the considerable footsteps of Liev Schreiber, Vincent D'Onfrio, Angus McFadyen, Jean Guérin, and Danny Huston (I suppose it's worth mentioning voice actor Maurice LeMarche as well) and eclipses them all--not bad for his screen debut.
On my way out of the theatre, I overheard a couple of killjoys who had a problem with Efron--but more so with his sizeable teenage fan presence in the audience, I would suspect--and one of them sniffed indignantly "how many of them have ever seen any of Welles' works?" I say "who cares"? If this entertaining little fable leads even a handful of teenage girls to sample Citizen Kane or The Third Man, then what's the harm? Cineaste-types too often act like they own these films, and are quick to become resentful when someone outside of their hermetically-sealed subculture dare to intrude. Welles felt Shakespeare was for everyone--so are his own films and how one comes to discover them really doesn't matter.
"What will I do to top this?!" McKay wonders in the final moments. That's a good question, Richard...
©Robert J. Lewis 2008
Friday, September 05, 2008
ME AND ORSON WELLES