Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles

Film review by: Witney Seibold

Orson Welles is a Hollwood legend, but he’s one of those legends who – thanks to his frank self-awareness, brilliance in wit, openness, self-deprecation, and all-too-human smirk – is relatable. It helps, also, that he was an insufferable SOB who berated his actors, exploited the trust of his wives and mistresses, and fired the people he had personal beefs with. Despite his reputation as a legend and a genius (which he was), he was also refreshingly… human.

I have seen actors play Orson Welles before. Angus MacFadyen played him in Tim Robbins’ underrated “Cradle Will Rock” to middling effect. Liev Schreiber played him in “RKO 281” managing to bring a lot of emotion, if not a good imitation to him. Even Vincent D’Onofio played him in one scene of Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” The face and facial tics were down, even though the indispensable Maurice Lamarche played his voice.

With Christian McKay’s performance in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles,” we have been given not only the best Welles imitators I have seen, but also one of the best performances of the year. McKay has down not only the voice and physical characteristic of Welles, but has them down to an uncanny degree. McKay embodies the role of Welles to a T. What’s more, he manages to leave a bit of room for himself to stretch and to emote on his own terms: this is no mere impersonation, but a grand piece of acting. If he is not nominated for any awards, I shall be sorely upset.

It is McKay who is the beating heart of Linklater’s film which is, I was surprised to discover, a rather wonderful work, all about the nature of performing in a theater community, the battle of backstage egos, and the creative process of a bastard genius. We moderns folk of the year 2009 like to think of the pre-war years in America as a square time of repression and unspoken vice, while reports of theater workers at the time report a different world where homosexuals were out, people did indeed sleep around, and some were even foulmouthed.

In 1937, Welles staged a production of “Julius Caesar” at his then-nascent Mercury Theater. It was a ragged production featuring mostly unknown actors, went way over budget, and could have been the ruin of Welles’ career. It opened to raves, and many of the actors (among them Joseph Cotton and Norman Lloyd) went on to do great things. One actor, Richard Samuels, played Brutus’ page in the opening night’s performance, and then was heard from no more. “Me and Orson Welles” is his story.

In Linklater’s film, we meet Welles, as well as Cotton and Lloyd (James Tupper and Leo Bill, both excellent). We meet John Houseman, the long-suffering partner of Welles (played by Eddie Marsan, also excellent). We meet the theater’s secretary Sonja (Claire Danes) who has a face like a big yellow rose, and who is the object of lust of most of the cast. We meet the vain leading lady (Kelly Reilly) and the troupe’s one Serious Actor George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin). And, we meet the Dickensian cipher Richard Samuels, the teenage boy who is playing hooky to be in this liitle play downtown. He isn’t the instigator of any major action, but is awed to be part of something so wondrous. He will ultimately be the only one who has any kind of lucky with Sonja.

Richard is played by teen heartthrob Zac Efron. Efron is a good looking kid, and a genial performer, but, sadly, brings nothing to this film. He is blank and bland, and doesn’t seem to have any character at all. It was his presence that, I think, kept a lot of audiences wary of this film. And while he has yet to prove that he can handle anything of weight outside of his usual blando-Disney box, he’s not terrible, and is kept afloat by the power of McKay and the supporting cast, as well as Linklater’s causal and capable direction.

Richard also has a few run-ins with a pretty young aspiring author named Gretta (Zoe Kazan, an actress I will continue to keep an eye on), who will prove to be a better friend than any of the egotists he is attempting to infiltrate.

Linklater is a director who knows how real people talk to one another, and allows dialogue to flow naturally from the lips of his actors. “Me and Orson Welles” is no exception, and we get to know all the character very well, and feel like we’ve been welcomed into the tumultuous and exciting orbit of a mad genius. See this film. You will be warmed by it.

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Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 1:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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