"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Me and Orson Welles

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes as you’re liable to discover they have clay feet, rarely living up to one’s expectations. Me and Orson Welles (2008) explores the good and bad aspects of hero worship. Based on Robert Kaplow's novel of the same name, the Richard Linklater-directed film chronicles the eventful week in a life of teenager Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) who finds himself cast in a minor role in Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) legendary stage adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1937. The aspiring, 22-year-old wunderkind set the play in modern times as a bare-stage production with comparisons to the rise of Fascism in Italy and Nazi Germany.
We meet the 17-year-old Richard when he arrives in New York City with dreams of becoming a working actor. In typical Linklater fashion, he meets Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) in a record store and they break the ice over a mutual admiration they have for Richard Rodgers as “There’s a Small Hotel” plays in the store. The young woman says, “They’re like lullabies, aren’t they?” She’s in the city trying to make it as a playwright, hoping that one of her stories is published in The New Yorker.
The scene is a sweet, unassuming meet-cute that is vintage Linklater. “What I want is for one person on this earth to read something I wrote and say, ‘You’re terrific,’” Gretta says wistfully in a moment that echoes Jesse and Celine at the beginning of Before Sunrise (1995). Like that couple, Richard and Gretta are two young people that meet by chance and connect instantly over their respective aspirations. This opening scene could be a self-contained film unto itself and one almost wants to follow these two-young people getting to know each other in the Big Apple.

By chance, Richard stumbles across Welles attempting to put on a production of Julius Caesar and impresses him with his drumming and singing (a jingle for Wheaties no less). He appeals to his vanity while also showing his knowledge of theater. Richard soon finds himself immersed in the sights and sounds of the Mercury Theater with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) putting him to work immediately, answering phones. He finds himself drawn to her only to find out that every man in the company is pursuing her with little success. Claire Danes is fine in the role and Sonja is nice enough but the actor does little to suggest why all the men in the Mercury Theater lust after her.
Welles casts Richard as Lucius but soon finds that “the principal occupation of the Mercury Theater is waiting for Orson,” as fellow actor Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) puts it. Me and Orson Welles goes on to chronicle the tumultuous production of Caesar, from the rough rehearsals to the problematic previews to its eventual triumph juxtaposed with Richard’s coming-of-age story.

Zac Efron captures Richard’s earnest romanticism that comes with youth and a lack of worldly experience. This lack of knowledge gives him the courage to approach Welles in the first place as he has nothing to lose. He’s hardly an innocent, though, as he goes in on a bet with two other actors to see who can bed Sonja first and, later, sets off the theater sprinkler system, sabotaging the play and then refusing to admit he did it when Welles confronts him. Richard is a rebellious teenager that doesn’t know any better.

His wholesome aspects come out in Gretta’s presence. Zoe Kazan’s natural charisma and her character’s playful zest for life are infinitely more interesting than Sonja’s seen-it-all attitude. It is obvious right away that Richard and she don’t have the same kind of easy-going connection that he has with Gretta. While Richard is physically attracted to Sonja, it is with Gretta that he connects with on a more meaningful level.
Christian McKay and Eddie Marsan are perfectly cast as the arrogant Welles and his long-suffering business partner John Houseman respectively. The former plays Welles as a pompous ass who doubles as a genius. He does an excellent job approximating the man’s distinctive voice and affectations. The latter matches him as the one person in the group willing to stand up to the him as he tries to keep the lights on while Welles follows his muse. McKay’s layered performance goes deeper than mere impersonation with moments that show his humanity, the strain of carrying the entire production on his back, and his ability to take credit for every aspect of the production in one moment and make someone feel like they are the most important person in the company in the next.
Linklater immerses us in Welles lore, such as how he would take an ambulance from the theater to his radio gigs so he could run red lights and make better time. We also see his famous affinity for magic and he even reads from The Magnificent Ambersons, a book that he would adapt into a one-hour radio play in 1939 and a film in 1942. The filmmaker also presents several examples of fascinating behind-the-scenes drama, such as one actor (Ben Chaplin) experiencing paralyzing stage fright minutes before going on stage until Welles talks him down through sheer force of will. We see the fragile egos of some actors and others that brim with confidence. They may have all sorts of weaknesses and inadequacies as people do but when they are on stage, radio or film they are brilliant artists that make art come vividly to life. The reward is the adulation from the audience, which is a unique high that some actors chase their entire career.

Me and Orson Welles
started out as a young-adult novel by Robert Kaplow. He had been inspired of a photograph he had seen of 15-year-old Arthur Anderson playing a lute, cast as Lucius in Welles’ production of Julius Caesar. Kaplow sought out Anderson, found out that he was still alive and living New York City, and based much of the novel on the man’s recollections from that time. Richard Linklater was so taken with Kaplow’s book that he paid for the rights and made it independently. Linklater identified with Welles as a fellow indie filmmaker: “He was doing in the 40s and 50s what everyone else was doing in the 80s and 90s.”
Linklater was faced with the daunting task of casting someone to play the iconic Welles. Kaplow told him about a one-man show entitled, Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, written by Mark Jenkins and starring Christian McKay, that was arriving in New York City for Off Broadway run after rave reviews at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He saw the play and was so impressed by the actor’s portrayal of Welles, from a young genius to an old man filled with regrets, that he cast him in the role. To prepare for the part, McKay listened to hundreds of hours of interviews and recalled his own arrogant youth. Linklater worked with the actor for months on portraying Welles.
Principal photography began in the Isle of Man in February 2008, shooting the Mercury Theater scenes in an old theater before moving on to Pinewood Studios in England where the exterior scenes of 1930s New York City were shot. According to Linklater, “We built one little street in Pinewood with a greenscreen at the end and every single exterior was shot on it, from different angles, dressed a different way.” The film crew went to New York City to shoot some photographs and a small amount of footage for digital effects.

“You know, sometimes you remember a week for the rest of your life,” Richard says partway through the film. In his brief tenure with the Mercury Theater, he does a lot of growing up, learning important lessons in life courtesy of Welles. Some of Richard’s mistakes can be attributed to his young age and his lack of life experiences as well as immaturity. He’s a hormonal teenager ruled by his libido. It is Gretta that keeps him grounded and the film ends on a wonderfully optimistic note as she and Richard are reunited. What will happen to them? Who knows but as she tells him, “It’s all ahead of us.”
Brooks, Xan. “Richard Linklater: ‘I’m not like Orson Welles. I’m a quiet director.’’ The Guardian. November 30, 2009.

Byrnes, Paul. “Me and Orson Welles.” The Sydney Morning Herald. July 31, 2010.

Dawtrey, Adam. “Director P.O.V.: Richard Linklater.” Variety. October 16, 2008.
Express. “Very Wellesian: Richard Linklater Discusses His New Film, Me and Orson Welles.” Washington Post. December 9, 2009.

Lim, Dennis. “Citizen Welles as Myth in the Making.” The New York Times. November 20, 2009.

Richards, Olly. “Claire Danes, Me and Orson Welles. Empire. February 1, 2008.