I had hoped the recent release of Richard Linklater’s ME AND ORSON WELLES would ignite some mainstream interest in Welles-ology. What exactly is mainstream anymore? That’s another debate for another time. For film lovers it’s your sites like our gracious hosts at Chud.com or other such “webzones” as the beloved Mr. Plinkett would say.
Oh, of course there is a large cache of film lovers who greatly appreciate the works of one Mr. Welles. The good folks at Wellesnet.com are a fine example. CITIZEN KANE is required viewing in nearly every film school. So there is interest out there. It just isn’t found in the more vocal sets of film viewership.
For many people Welles begins as Kane and ends as a great big man doing green pea commercials. (Or the voice of Unicron) This is a crime. His post Kane filmography is not appreciated nearly enough. I would argue that Welles continued to push the boundaries of filmic storytelling for the entirety of his career. Works like MACBETH, THE TRIAL, F IS FOR FAKE, and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT beg more discussion.
So that is what I shall do over the course of the next few articles. We’re going to get to the nuts and bolts of why you should investigate these films, if you haven’t already….
Before we do that though let’s take an appropriate jump back to the beginning. ME AND ORSON WELLES, set against the backdrop of Welles’ early career work in the Mercury Theater, hasn’t received enough press or a right proper review on this site. I shall humbly attempt to remedy that. (I’ll be light on the spoilers since very few of you have had a chance to actually see this one.)
ME AND ORSON WELLES
This film received a limited release. Actually limited is generous. You know the film market is bad when a Richard Linklater movie can’t get more than 134 screens at the peak of its run.
ME AND ORSON WELLES struggled on the festival circuit for nearly two years before finally squeaking into theaters. It was well received by the usual critical suspects (Ebert, et al) but, like the films of its titular character, not many people saw it. That’s a shame because they missed a charming film.
New York, 1937: Zac Efron portrays (the fictional) Richard Samuels, a 17 year old high schooler with designs for taking on Broadway. Through happenstance he encounters Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and his merry band of Mercury Players. They’re staging their groundbreaking theatrical production of Julius Caesar and have lost (read: fired) their Lucius. There’s a week left before opening night and Richard is cast as the replacement. He gets a front row view to the creative maelstrom that was a young Mr. Welles.
Let’s get this out of the way. Zac Efron was quite good. He’s got the tough role in this one. His protagonist serves as our gateway to this world while simultaneously existing opposite the force of McKay’s Welles. Efron plays the part with an easy charisma. Had he overdone it, Richard would have come off as smarmy. The nice guy part is always the toughest, and Efron handles it well.
Christian McKay as Orson Welles is in a completely different league. I say that with no offense intended to Zac Efron. McKay is just that good. Roger Ebert (and others) have complimentarily referred to his performance as Welles as a spot on “impersonation”. I think that’s a terribly incorrect term for his work here. He inhabits the character. He emanates the magnetism and dangerous genius of the 23-year-old Orson. I’m excited not just by his performance here, but by what he can do next. He’s somebody to watch. He’s second to only Christopher Waltz in the 2009 best supporting actor category.
The rest of the cast is also quite good. Ben Chaplin is unrecognizable (in a good way) as George Coulouris. James Tupper is amazingly likeable as the ‘Virginia Gentleman’ Joseph Cotton. Leo Bill provides apt comic relief as Norman Lloyd. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Eddie Marsan’s harried work as John Houseman. It’s a credit to the cast and Linklater that all of these performances gel so well together. They give dynamic life to the world of the Mercury Theater group.
The only performance that didn’t quite reach me was Claire Danes’ Sonja Jones. She isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. She is given a bit of a thankless part when you compare her character to the playful eccentrics she shares the screen with.
This is a movie about actors and personalities, so it’s appropriate that Linklater allows those performances to shine. I’d really like to commend him for not going insane in the digital grading process. Somewhere in the last decade or so filmmakers began to equate period films with over emphasized de-saturation in the post-production process. This film doesn’t bother with that. It uses skillful art direction and costuming choices to create 1937 New York.
I don’t think I’m divulging too much to say that this is a ‘coming of age’ piece. As an artist, I found myself identifying with Richard Samuel’s youthful ascent into the world of his idols…and the subsequent blow of sadness tempered by optimism that follows his foray.
ME AND ORSON WELLES is a fantastic movie. It isn’t a love story in the traditional sense. Like many of Linklater’s previous films it’s really about a love of life and passion for the great moments that exist on life’s stage.
Next installment we begin our discussion of the works of the man himself.
(Programming notes: The American Film Institute Silver: Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring Maryland is running an Orson Welles retrospective from now until May. They’re showing theatrical prints of films like Chimes at Midnight, Othello and Macbeth, in addition to the usual suspects like Citizen Kane. Go check one out if you get a chance.