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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
“Very Wellesian: Richard Linklater Discusses His New Film, Me and Orson Welles.” Washington Post. December 9, 2009.
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.