Chris Welles Feder's account of the premiere, film, and plaque unveiling
ME AND ORSON WELLES premiere
The premiere was held at the Clearview Theater at 260 West 23rd Street in Manhattan on Monday evening, November 23rd. I arrived a few minutes before Zac Efron who was greeted by the media like a megastar. Photographers lined up five deep to take his picture, and the flashbulbs going off in his face and all around him must have been blinding. Zac looked like a dazed deer caught in a car’s headlights, and it took a team of body guards to hold back the ravenous press and usher him safely inside the theater.
Before the movie began, Christian McKay had heard that I was in the audience. He came bounding down the aisle, practically leapfrogging over people to get to my seat. Then, pumping my hand, he told me how much it meant to him that I was there. “This makes my evening!” he declared. We made plans to meet later at the party.
I enjoyed the movie and found it well-paced and entertaining. Zac Efron is most appealing and gives a sensitive and convincing performance. I felt the movie worked best as a coming-of-age story involving Zac’s character and Clare Danes’ (both entirely fictional as I am sure you know). I was also fascinated by the reconstruction of the Mercury’s Julius Caesar in modern dess, which I found well done. (Zac told me later that there had originally been a lot more footage of Julius Caesar, but it was cut, unfortunately, in the final version.)
As I am sure you will understand, it is difficult for me to be objective about a portrayal of my father in a fictional movie, especially when the Orson Welles character is presented as a sacré monstre (holy monster). Director Richard Linklater was equal to the task of telling a coming-of-age story but not, I feel, of delving into the Orson Welles character and helping us better understand what makes him tick. As a result, we end up with a caricature. Instead of taking the novel on which the movie is based at face value, as well as buying into the prevailing myths surrounding Orson Welles, Linklater might have gone deeper into his subject and given us a more complex and substantive portrait of a theatrical genius.
Christian McKay is a charming man, in person as well as on the screen, and a fine actor. He does a splendid job with the character he was given to play, but it is only an echo of the real Orson Welles. As charming as McKay is, the real Orson was infinitely more charming, charismatic, even spellbinding. The real Orson exuded at age 22 a boyish enthusiasm, a boundless energy, a sense of childlike wonder and curiosity that captivated almost everyone who came into contact with him. He had a zest for life that was irresistible. His actors were willing to work themselves to the bone not only because they believed in his genius but because he was good to them, supportive, generous, even as he made superhuman demands on them. For instance, we do not see the fictional Orson bringing food to the theater for his actors or setting up cots in the aisles and backstage during all-night rehearsals. The real Orson was incapable of the put-downs, petty humiliations and acts of cruelty we see portrayed in Me And Orson Welles. Ask yourself: Would practically every member of the Mercury Theater company have followed Orson Welles to Hollywood and remained with him for years had they been treated like the Zac Efron character in the movie?
What is personally distressing to me is that people who see this movie will assume they are seeing the “real” Orson Welles, and the myth of the sacré monstre will live on. I hope that my recently published memoir will help to dispel the myth.
The party was held on the glamorous roof-top floor of the Grammercy Park Hotel. By the time I arrived, the place was packed and you could hardly move around. It took me quite a while to find Christian McKay and his lovely wife, Emily, but once I did, I spent most of my time talking to them, and what a delightful couple they are. I gave Christian a copy of my memoir, telling him I wanted him to meet “the real Orson Welles.” He said that of all the books written about my father, mine is the most important because “It tells the truth.”
On my way out, Zac Efron was waiting to speak to me. He asked me what I thought of his performance in the movie, and I told him he was “adorable.” “In fact,” I went on, “you are the whole movie.” He beamed when he heard this, but in my view the Me is the best part of Me And Orson Welles.
We gathered at 11 a.m. on Tuesday morning, November 24th, at 110 West 41st Street, near Sixth Avenue, to unveil the Mercury Theatre plaque affixed to the building at that address. Now an office building on the fringes of Manhattan’s theater district, there is no trace of the original Mercury Theater (or the Comedy Theater which preceded it) except for the fire escape on the street. Our party consisted of director Richard Linklater, Christian McKay with his wife and immediate family, Zac Efron, myself, the publicists who had set up the event and a group of photographers clicking away. “I have a bone to pick with you,” boomed Christian McKay the moment he saw me. “I started reading your book last night, couldn’t put it down and was up until 6 a.m. this morning!” For a man who had barely slept, he looked remarkably well. It seemed the party had gone on until 2 or 3 a.m., and it had taken a heroic effort to come to the unveiling. “How are you holding up?” I asked Zac Efron who was wearing very large dark glasses. He grabbed my hand in reply.
Our little ceremony to unveil the plaque was caught in a video which you can see on Criterion’s web site.
Although it was all long ago and far away, it was satisfying nonetheless to recognize the Mercury Theatre’s outstanding contribution to the history of the American theater. I was proud to be there.
MERCURY PLAQUE TEXT
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus.
On this site in 1937, legendary American actor-writer-director- producer Orson Welles founded the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman. Here Welles directed groundbreaking productions of Julius Caesar, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Heartbreak House, and Danton’s Death. Welles and the Mercury Theatre would go on to make history with The War of the Worlds broadcast and Citizen Kane. Astonishingly, he would accomplish all this by his 26th birthday.
The quote from Shakespeare on the plaque comes from Cassius’s speech in Julius Caesar:
CASSIUS: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus, and we petty men Walk under his huge legs and peep about To find ourselves dishonourable graves. Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
This was also in the NY Daily News article about her displeasure:
McKay told us: "I respect her opinion enormously. At the same time, there is the historical record. I spoke with actors who worked at the Mercury. One had hair-raising stories about Welles' womanizing. If we made him more likable, we'd have taken all the drama away."
P.S.: Chris' half sister, Beatrice, says she won't see the film (she boycotts all dramatizations of her father's life). Likely to be happier with it is Arthur Andersen, the actor who inspired Efron’s character and who went on to play that cereal-guarding leprechaun in the Lucky Charms commercials.