Me and Orson Welles

Starring Christian McKay, James Tupper, Ben Chaplin and Eddie Marsan. Directed by Richard Linklater.
Rated PG (mild coarse language and sexual references). 114 mins.

Before Orson Welles became a towering figure in American cinema at the age of 27 with Citizen Kane, he had made a huge impact in the theatre, especially in New York City, with his Mercury Theatre.  Already the subject of several films, realist (Cradle will Rock) and fictional (Fade to Black), Welles is the dominating presence in this film about the first week of the Mercury Theatre in 1937, the rehearsals for Welles' production, Caesar, a pared-down version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (in 90 minutes), in contemporary dress (with black Fascist overtones), as well as scenes from the performance on opening night which ensured Welles' stature at the age of 23.

Welles is played with extraordinary bravura by British actor, Christian McKay, who had done a one-man show on Welles in theatre, and who resembles the younger Welles and can do a Wellesian grin that reminds us of Harry Lime.  Other members of the group shown in the film include Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) who played Marc Antony.  Welles, of course, played Brutus, making him the centre of the play and the tragedy.
Welles' producer and mentor was John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), who was able to keep the peace and ensure the show's going on.

But, the film shows us behind the scenes at the Mercury (filmed, in fact, in the restored Gaiety Theatre on the Isle of Man).  The 'Me' of the title is a school student, Richard Samuels, based on the experiences of actual actor, Arthur Anderson.  Richard is outside the Mercury with would-be performers when Welles chances on him and is impressed by his responses and hires him to play the slave, Lucius, and sing in the scene where Brutus tries to sleep before the final battle.  Also behind the scenes is Welles' young assistant, Sonja Jones, whose ambition is to meet David O. Selznick and become a star (and, as Richard discovers to his dismay, is not too scrupulous about means to this end).

In the meantime, Richard has met a young would-be writer and gives her short story to Sonja to give to a friend at the New Yorker.

In terms of marketing, it is the star who plays Richard who is foremost.  Serious critics and viewers have turned up their noses because Richard is Zac Efron, better known to teenies and tweenies as the star of the High School Musicals.  However, he fits the part very well here, an earnest but sometimes callow youth who has potential.  Efron has, in fact, shown acting skills and comic style in Hairspray and, particularly, 17 Again.  Sonja is played by Claire Danes.

The screenplay is based on a novel by Robert Kaplow and is very smartly and wittily written.  The film was directed by Richard Linklater (whose varied films include Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused and School of Rock).

Welles emerges as a creative genius not plagued by self-doubt (at least, not in public) but an egotist of the highest order who pontificates about everything, who, when one thinks he is showing sincerity and kindness, proves that he is a spiteful man who brooks no opposition.  Maybe Caesar, his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938 which made many Americans think Martians had invaded America, and Citizen Kane were his peak and he was only in his 20s.  While he made many more interesting films, his career was a mixture of highs and lows, grandeur and movie twaddle, this is a telling portrait of an often obnoxious genius.

Madman Out July 29 2010

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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