Me and Orson Welles depicts the Mercury Theatre’s seminal 1937 production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by a 21 year-old Orson Welles. Told from the point of view of Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a fictional school boy who is given a brief taste of what it is like to work under Welles (Christian McKay), the film goes behind the scenes at the theatre to look at just how far a genius can push people in the name of art.
Having successfully managed to avoid High School Musical and all his other work, I came to this film not really sure what to expect of Zac Efron, but he really was extremely well-suited to the role. Not only does he look like an old school movie star, he is clearly a talented performer when it comes to singing and dancing, so he feels in many ways like a throwback to the old style of movie star, as well as having a natural charm that bodes well for his post HSM-career.
Despite all this, however, Efron is rather outshone by Christian McKay as Welles. Rather than simply imitating the legendary director and actor, McKay gives an utterly captivating performance as he seems to physically transform himself and become Welles. He effortlessly conveys Welles’ charisma and charm, as well as believably showing flashes of his genius without ever overdoing it. He is the best thing about the film, and director Richard Linklater is clearly aware of this, allowing McKay to really stand out.
Really, it would be worth going to see the film just for McKay’s performance, but to sell it simply on that basis would really do the film a disservice. Claire Danes gives a perfectly fine, if slightly predictable, performance as Sonja. However, it is really the actors playing the rest of the cast of the play who give the film an appeal beyond McKay’s magnificent performance. Particular mention must go to the always-brilliant Eddie Marsan as John Houseman, the luminous Kelly Reilly as Muriel and the rather dashing James Tupper as Joseph Cotten.
Richard Linklater’s direction manages to make the production of a play seem exciting, while he draws out good performances from the cast. Many of the supporting cast are clearly having fun hamming it up as self-important actors, but their performances never go too far. The music helps to evoke the era nicely, often being used for comic effect. However, the film does have its flaws. Efron struggles at times with the more emotional scenes, and the character of Richard can seem a little unbelievable at times. The sub-plot with Gretta and the ending both feel rather contrived, although they are very touching.
While not the year’s most ground-breaking or brilliant film, Me and Orson Welles is a fun look at the theatre, while also raising some interesting questions about the idea of genius, and McKay’s performance as Welles is really not to be missed.
Windy City Times
Richard Knight Jr
In the ongoing effort to shed his squealing teen fan base, teen heartthrob Zach Efron spreads his wings a tiny bit in the likeable coming-of-age comedy Me and Orson Welles.
The film—set in 1937, when Welles had conquered radio and was looking to solidify his theatrical reputation with a Broadway sensation before heading out to Hollywood—isn't much different from a lot of other backstage comedies ( Mrs. Henderson Presents, An Awfully Big Adventure, etc. ) and features the requisite cast of eccentric theatre types, plenty of after rehearsal shenanigans, and a measure of familiar, comfortable insight about life upon the Wicked Stage.
Efron plays Richard Samuels, a 17-year-old high school teen with acting dreams, drop-dead dreamy looks, a modicum of talent and plenty of chutzpah. When, by chance, he meets the renowned boy wunderkind Orson Welles ( played with genuine finesse by film newcomer Christian McKay ) , Richard, whom Welles immediately dubs "Lucius," talks his way into a small role in Welles' eagerly anticipated production of "Julius Caesar."
Cutting class, Richard soaks up the reflected glory of being in the presence of the master, who dazzles the kid with his outrageous behavior as he goes about his frenetic schedule of radio appearances, rehearsals for the play, socials with the jet set and, of course, rendezvous with various women. Richard immediately forms a crush on pretty Sonja Jones ( Claire Danes ) , Welles' production assistant, and his carnal dreams come true when he ends up spending the night with her.
Though Sonja finds Richard's offer to show her "wealth, fame and adventure—at the movies" endearing, she's also a pragmatist with her own career agenda and isn't about to lose her head over the good-looking kid—especially with the promise of a Hollywood career and success in the offing. Cocky and aware of his matinee-idol good looks, Richard then overplays his hand and finds himself locked in a contest of wills with Welles himself just as the play is about to premiere.
Efron has the same breathtaking good looks of Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor, the matinee idols who were making millions swoon in 1937. He looks smashing in the tailored clothes of the '30s. ( Ralph Laurens seems to have tailored the costumes. ) Moreover, during a vivid, thrilling recreation of Welles' daring production of "Julius Caesar," Richard prettily sings a poetic little song that will make the little girls ( and gay boys ) in the audience swoon, though it's not historically right for the '30s, the age of the crooner; however, McKay and the cast of crack supporting actors easily act rings around him. ( McKay does the seemingly impossible—he humanizes Welles. )
Me and Orson Welles, based on a novel and directed by Richard Linklater ( exploring yet another film genre ) is a nice piece of fluff that will be particularly enjoyed by those with a taste for the era when the theatre was rife with Teutonic personalities, both behind the curtain and onstage. Melodramatic and hammy ( "Let's rip their throats out," Welles commands his actors in a pre-show speech ) , the movie taps into the fun of watching this bygone theatrical era ( the sets, costumes, and soundtrack add to the pleasure ) . Although it won't exactly set Efron's fan base aflame ( he remains clothed throughout ) and certainly won't cause anything akin to the hysteria that greeted the High School Musical franchise, he holds his own with the more seasoned actors and can safely advance up the next rung of the ladder after having successfully headlined such an amiable little indie film as this.
What can be said about “Me and Orson Welles” has already been said about every movie Zac Efron has ever been in. The movie won’t change viewers’ lives or their attitudes toward cinema, but it’s certainly not without its charm.
“Me and Orson Welles” is a story about a 17−year−old aspiring actor named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) who is offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to play Lucius in a re−imagining of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” set in fascist Italy and directed by the already famous radio actor Orson Welles (Christian McKay). As opening night approaches, Richard falls for older woman Sonja (Claire Danes), and this infatuation threatens to mix his personal and professional lives. The plot is simple and charming enough, but this is really all the positives that can be said about this film.
Viewers going to see Efron paraded about adorably in 1930s New York City apparel won’t be disappointed. The star of the “High School Musical” movies (2006, 2007, 2008) looks every bit as good as he did in that prom tuxedo or basketball jersey.
For those viewers going to see if Efron can actually act: Beware. In his first foray into drama, Efron barely gets his feet wet. It is not entirely his fault: The film spends so much time being cute and nostalgic that it forgets to be dramatic, and Danes is not a believable partner for Efron, in looks or in performance.
Ironically, the movie’s greatest strength is also the biggest obstacle facing Efron’s attempted acting. The spot−on, powerful portrayal of Welles by British newcomer McKay (thankfully) overshadows Efron at every turn. Never has a movie been more appropriately titled, despite its grammatical curiosity. This movie is about some guy and Welles; it belongs to McKay, not Efron.
McKay’s performance as the headstrong genius whose career has not yet caught up to his ego approaches absolute perfection. Audience members hate Welles, but can’t take their eyes off of him. He dominates every scene, not only because of his position of authority in the plot, but also because when McKay belts out his lines, he commands the audience’s attention in a way that Efron simply cannot match. As the film progresses, the audience can almost see Efron’s acknowledgment of McKay’s dominance forcing him to retreat to the background, which only serves to make Efron’s bland performance even more insipid.
Director Richard Linklater gives Efron plenty of opportunities to shine with overused facial close−ups at key emotional points for his character, but to no avail. Even Efron’s most climactic scene falls remarkably flat. In fact, the only times Efron seems comfortable in a scene are when he is wooing someone — either the underwhelming Danes as Sanja, or the positively delightful Zoe Kazan’s character, a love interest closer to Efron’s character’s age.
“Me and Orson Welles” is an adequate film with a good heart. It fails as a period piece or a drama, but Linklater’s feel for 1930s New York yields some creative scenery and costumes. And, in a way similar to that of Efron’s earlier film “Seventeen Again” (2009), “Me and Orson Welles” does have just enough Efron−inspired charm to get by.
Most importantly, the film reveals a star on the rise in McKay, who conveys a pitch−perfect Welles, similar to Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in “Capote” (2005). It’s a shame that McKay’s talents have not yet been put to better use, but he steals the show and does the absolute best with what this film has to offer. While “Me and Orson Welles” is not a total loss, audience members expecting to see Efron’s successful jump into dramatic features will leave disappointed.
Two and a half stars out of five
With Orson Welles, it's all in the voice — which over the course of four decades could sell anything from a Martian invasion to Paul Masson wine. Now when Christian McKay first shows up in Richard Linklater's adaptation of Robert Kaplow's novel about the 21-year-old wunderkind's adaptation of Julius Caesar in 1938, he looks all wrong. Too old, too thin-lipped, too British — he resembles Oscar Wilde more than Orson Welles. Once he starts talking, though, he evokes the great auteur's spell, and the film emerges from a workmanlike backstage drama and an engaging coming-of-age story into an exhilarating and ambivalent celebration of genius.
Too bad, then, that we see McKay's Welles only indirectly, from the point of view of 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a cocky, somewhat callow high-school student with ambitions that mirror Welles's own. Bored with his English-lit class, Richard takes his act to the street — which turns out to be right outside the new Mercury Theatre in Manhattan. Playing his own drumroll, Richard wins the favor of the great Welles, who probably recognizes in him a fellow humbug.
Julius Caesar is, of course, the tragedy of a hero murdered for overweening ambition, and Richard wins a spot not quite as a spear carrier but as Lucius, the dewy-faced manservant to Welles's Brutus. In a key scene (or so Welles pontificates), Lucius humanizes Brutus by charming him with a ballad backed by a lute (actually a tricked-up ukulele). Humanizing Welles off stage, though, proves another matter.
As usual, a woman is involved. It's not Gretta (Zoe Kazan, Elia's granddaughter), the dreamy New Yorker short-story aspirant who likes to recite Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" while gazing at an actual Grecian urn. She seems the more suitable match for Richard, but instead he's drawn to the older Sonja (Claire Danes), Welles's secretary, who's adept at coldly turning her looks, her wit, and her resourcefulness to her own purposes. The direction in which this is heading seems obvious, but Linklater keeps it unpredictable.
Linklater seldom makes the same type of film twice, but he's better at some than others. This period piece excels his previous effort in the genre, The Newton Boys — probably because putting on a play is more Linklater's style than robbing a bank. The detail of the '30s Manhattan setting may be perfunctory, but in this he mirrors Welles's own production, whose schematic set design, with its expressionistic lighting and rough-hewn props, evoked a nightmare world of contemporary totalitarianism. Also like Welles, Linklater nurtures the brilliant work of his supporting cast and crew (Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris and Eddie Marsan as John Houseman in particular).
But the shenanigans of this snootier Andy Hardy comedy recede before what Welles has wrought on the stage. Linklater is at his best re-creating this process, summoning the exuberance and the evanescence of a perfect theatrical moment. When the mob sweeps away the hapless Cinna the Poet (Norman Lloyd as played by Leo Bill), in a dazzling illusion of shadow and stagecraft, the film audience gasps along with the audience in the film. The assassination of Caesar, reproduced for the umpteenth time over the centuries, registers genuine shock and horror. Like his voice (a tossed-away bit of extemporization in a radio play alone is worth the price of admission), the ego of Welles as invoked by McKay more than fills an auditorium, carrying all before it to a transcendent triumph. Then the silence falls and the emptiness and the real tragedy begin.
Talk about a slow train coming: Austin-based director Richard Linklater’s latest, Me and Orson Welles, premiered at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, where it was expected to be one of the more high-profile acquisitions. But despite Linklater’s impressive track record, and the fact that the film marked Zac Efron’s first starring role in an adult drama, the major distributors all turned it down. It screened at South by Southwest in March. Nine months later, it’s finally trickling into a handful of American theaters across the country.
The good news is that Me and Orson Welles isn’t nearly as terrible as its provenance might suggest. Based on Robert Kaplow’s 2003 novel, the film follows a handsome teenager named Richard (Efron) who talks his way into Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater troupe, just as Welles gears up for the 1937 production of Julius Caesar that will make him famous. Linklater and production designer Laurence Dorman elegantly bring to life Depression-era New York City. As Welles, Christian McKay gives a booming and very entertaining performance.
That said, there’s nothing holding this movie together and almost no reason for it to exist. The mostly shapeless story follows Richard as he observes the larger-than-life figures and falls for a fellow troupe member (Claire Danes). Supporting players (including Eddie Marsan as John Houseman and James Tupper as Joseph Cotten) drift into and out of the proceedings; after a while, you wish you were watching a documentary about these people instead of such a rote fictionalization. Linklater remains one of Texas’ most accomplished talents (his previous picture, Fast Food Nation, is among the most underappreciated films of the decade). But Me and Orson Welles won’t be remembered as one of his finer hours.
North County Times
In 1937 Manhattan, the country was not yet headed for a war that would consume it, and Orson Welles was merely an extremely talented stage actor, brash and fueled by confidence, but not yet a cinematic maestro.
This is the setting for "Me and Orson Welles," a film that sees young actor-musician Richard, played by Zac Efron, enjoy a chance encounter with Welles and his famous Mercury Theatre troupe as they prepare to open "Julius Cesar."
Welles, played to the brim and then some by the fearless British actor Christian McKay, brings Richard into the troupe, and Richard experiences everything possible about the theater ---- both good and bad ---- in a whirlwind week that has him observing as cast and crew shine and stumble under the inevitable glare of Welles and his genius.
The result is a coming-of-age film using big names as its creative tools. Richard Linklater's film is a mostly delightful period piece. Even if a little straightforward and simple, there is also a magic to it, not just in the charismatic era it chooses to tell the story, but in its everyman attitude. Just about everyone has a story to tell about the passage toward adulthood and its joys and pitfalls. "Me and Orson Welles" conjures a little magic to tell such a story.
Three out of four stars
I don't know why, but I just can't seem to take Zac Efron very seriously. Maybe because his only real significant body of work is the "High School Musical" series.
Yeah, that could be it.
And, unfortunately, his performance in "Me and Orson Welles" didn't change my opinion about him, even though it appears he is trying hard to transition from teen heartthrob into a more "mature" actor.
Set in 1937, Efron stars as Richard Samuels, your typical teen, bored at school and daydreaming about becoming the next big thing on Broadway (clearly not much of a stretch for Mr. Efron to play).
He happens to come across a theater company that is in the process of putting on a production of Julius Caesar. There, he runs into the infamous Orson Welles (Christian McKay), the man in charge of the production, and is awarded a small part in the play.
Much of the rehearsal time is spent waiting for Orson to show up, as he always seems to be too busy doing radio interviews or seducing women (other than his pregnant wife). And when he finally does appear, he never has time to go over the entire script, causing the opening date of the play to constantly change.
In the down time, Richard and the rest of the male cast gawk over Orson's production assistant, the fetching Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who has politely refused a date with all of them, despite their constant persistence.
Still, Richard becomes infatuated with her. So when Orson makes the company participate in a team-building exercise in which everyone is paired off with someone to go out for a drink, Richard cheats to make sure he is paired with Sonja. And after that one date, he makes the mistake of declaring her his "lover."
While Zac Efron's performance isn't much to talk about (though I suppose it is a step up from previous roles), Christian McKay does an outstanding job as Orson Welles, capturing the real Welles' booming voice and bold persona perfectly.
In the end, "Me and Orson Welles" should have focused more on the "Orson Welles" rather than the "me" part of the title. But the film is still likely to appeal to the theater people out there as well as any Orson Welles fans.
Me and Orson Welles is mixed with the fair balance of comedy and drama that brings the audience through the turmoil and frustration that comes within a play. More so than anything else, it basically puts us into one huge admiring eye for Orson Welles as he puts together the play that’s smaller than his ego. We take a look at the entire story through the eyes of Richard as we are immersed into the fast track world that Welles lives in.
Once you tell people that Richard is being played by Zac Efron, quite a few of them will loose interest immediately. The bias that lingers for a person when it comes to a particular actor happened but faded away as Efron showed a great amount of improvement in his acting than in previous films. Then again, as we enter into the world of Welles, Efron along with his character at times take a back seat to McKay’s scene stealing performance as Orson Welles. McKay basically becomes Welles and the scenes between him and Efron are entertaining and amusing.
To put it bluntly, the story could’ve used somebody else other than Claire Danes as Sonja who’s basically the help and one of the more one sided characters in the bunch. Though there is an eclectic group of characters within the story, nobody else particularly stands out.
Richard Linklater only stands out during the third act of the story when they finally put together the entire play and go into the opening night. The rest of the time he is not as dominant as the couple of performances and wonderful production design capture the audience’s attention. The cinematography unfortunately does not get more creative again until the third act when they’re finally putting together and acting out the whole play. With the direction and cinematography both doing that, it frustrates to a certain extent because then it feels like they are trying to put together the feature in their own way and make it great right before the whole thing ends.
The parts that include Efron with McKay are great but few and far between. The whole aspect of it being an experience between him and Welles does not seen to be as much as it is just being the Orson Welles movie of him stampeding through people with his wit and command. The subplot with Danes is very short lived and some what unnecessary. The part of the story that was the most enjoyable is the entire process of putting together a play, the tension and frustration and anxiety that builds up until the curtain gets pulled back for the opening night performance. If it’s another thing that this film really pins down it’s that experience.
After taking the dive into Me and Orson Welles, one of the few things that’s the strongest in this film is Christian McKay. With the rest of the cast’s decent acting, the some what flip flop directing from Linklater and great look of the film leaves you with a strange feeling once you leave the theater. That strange feeling could ultimately leave you feeling on the fence about the film much like myself.
Two out of five stars
Socialist Worker Online
This is a coming-of-age movie with a twist. The story of a young man looking for success and love is set within a real historical context – Orson Welles’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in November 1937.
Mention Orson Welles and most people think of Citizen Kane, the first film he directed, or of his role as Harry Lime in the thriller The Third Man.
The image is often of a genius, destroyed by the studio system but not helped by his own massive ego.
This is a distortion. It also leaves out something crucial. In the 1930s Welles was deeply affected by the Great Depression and the looming menace of European fascism.
There was a great flowering of popular left wing culture. A space opened up for socially aware culture. President Roosevelt’s New Deal administration channelled funds into arts, drama, media and literacy projects.
This was the atmosphere in which Welles worked. He established his reputation in the theatre as a radical innovator. The radicalism was also political.
This kind of culture came to an abrupt end in the post-war period – destroyed by hysterical anti-communism. Its history was buried – including Welles’s own part in it.
In 1937 Welles turned 22. He started work on a musical called The Cradle Will Rock, set in Steeltown USA. It was about prostitution and degradation but also about resistance and strikes.
News spread of what Welles was up to. Those in charge of official funding became nervous. Rehearsals coincided with bitter strikes in major car plants and riots in Chicago steel mills.
The musical was banned. Guards padlocked the New York Federal Theatre and the scenery was confiscated. Welles came into conflict with union leaders.
At the last minute he found another theatre. He was forced to mount the musical without scenery, orchestra or some of the cast – just a piano.
Nevertheless, the musical was a triumphant success. Its message about a storm wind rocking the cradle of American society caused a sensation.
Which brings us back to Me And Orson Welles. The production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which is at the heart of the film, followed directly from The Cradle Will Rock – and in its own way was just as radical.
But you would not really know this from Richard Linklater’s film.
It tends to concentrate on the drama of personality clashes, sexual intrigue, young love and professional rivalry.
It does this with great style and polish – and the film’s sly allusions to aspects of Welles’s later career are all great fun, particularly the bit where the actor playing Joseph Cotten reprises a moment from The Third Man (one for the film buffs).
It tends to give you Welles the theatrical genius, part bully, part
womaniser – rather than Welles the political radical. Nevertheless, the politics do come through – particularly at the end, when we finally get to see key moments from the opening night of Julius Caesar.
And here we have a brilliant recreation of what Welles did back in 1937. He broke with tradition and the kind of “refined” acting that depicted Caesar as noble and the assassins as evil.
Welles’s version is updated to the present. The cast are dressed in fascist uniform.
Harsh spotlights are used to accentuate the violence and manipulation of Caesar’s dictatorial regime. Brutus, the assassin, is the hero – not Antony, who “restores” order. This saves the film from being enjoyable but slight.
There are good performances from Zac Efron, who plays the part of Richard Samuels, the aspiring student actor, and from Claire Danes.
She is his romantic interest – but is more interested in advancing her career through sleeping with the right men than being Richard’s true love.
But the prize must go to Christian McKay as Welles. It’s not that he resembles the real Orson Welles. Rather, he brilliantly captures the mannerisms, gestures and voice of the man. Even here, though, there is a problem. For what he captures is the image we have come to associate with the later Welles.
The drama revolves round the brilliance but destructiveness of Welles’s ego – not the more complex drama of artistic ambition and politics. The conclusion is irresistible.
Young Richard should give up the lure of being like Welles and settle down with the more modest and genuine young woman he met in a museum.
There she had been contemplating a Grecian urn and reciting a poem by Keats. The message seems clear – better a contemplative art than an activist one. Better the museum than life in political theatre.
When most people think of the theater their feelings typically center around the final production and the moment the curtain raises on the premiere night of a performance. To the cast and crew of a theatrical production, opening night especially is a most precious and unparalleled experience, the culmination of exhaustive preparation and countless hours aimed at showcasing the work in its final form. Director Richard Linklater's latest offering, Me & Orson Welles, explores the world of the theater through the eyes of one talented, yet self absorbed director (Christian McKay) as he aims to orchestrate a production of Caesar, his most challenging and ambitious show to date. Linklater gives the audience a backstage pass to the making of a Broadway show and an instruction in just what it takes to succeed in the wicked business of the stage. Through this platform the audience is thrust into a world where all is put on the line for sake of a successful opening night.
Orson Welles is rightfully painted as a pompous, yet well deserving theater director, known for his audacious vision and unique perspective as he puts his signature stamp on the worlds most well known plays. Me and Orson Wells exposes this man through the eyes of highschool senior Richard, (Zac Efron) as he manages to catch the auteur's eye at an unlikely generous moment. By a stroke of luck Richard is hastily given the small yet important role of Lucias, and despite only partaking in only two small scenes becomes an integral part of the overall production. Almost immediately Richard is thrust into a glittering life of titanic egos and illicit affairs where his own morals are put to the test as he questions whether or not he should stand up to the man that could make or break him.
As the dynamic version of Caesar begins to take form with multi-talented Welles as a major player, the audience is shown the true meaning of “hurry up and wait.” When the ever-so-self-righteous director finally enters the performance hall, he continues on with a yelling fervor that only demands his willing cast to tackle yet another version of an already perfected scene. As the group lingers patiently for their master, naive Richard begins to learn about the great man's many incestuous romances and is somewhat eager to participate in the dire quest for one such blond assistant Sonja, (Claire Danes). This initial schoolboy crush becomes an infatuation that may turn out to be detrimental to both his young heart and his career.
Linklater creates a world in a forgotten New York City of old, at a time where the arts were well respected and the many sexual encounters are disguised by code names, letters and the ever important quadruple space innuendo. This elegant film manages to embrace the city of the 1930’s while at the same time maintaining a style that will resonate with the audience of today. Christian McKay gives a commanding performance as Orsen Welles - having played the mercurial man on stage before in the one-man show Rosebud: The Life of Orsen Welles - managing to simultaneously allow the other actors including Efron and Danes a platform to embrace their character as well.
McKay allows Welles to control the stage without overshadowing the other actors within the context of the film thus providing a very well coordinated ensemble. Although much of the film exists within the confines of the Caesar prodution, the actors make a precise distinction to embrace the theater roles from the perspective of their character persona. The witty rapport between the cast is infectious as they often reference the superstition in a banter that can only exist between true comrades. Linklater proves to again bring an organic life to the cinema by creating memorable sequences out of situations other directors may find inconsequential. By incorporating these details into the film, the audience can experience the theater and fully understand the love, passion and sometimes heartbreak that goes into the production of a Broadway Show.
Orson Welles was an American film director, writer, actor and producer. Welles is held with high esteem as one of the most accomplished dramatic artists of the 20th century. He is known for his movie Citizen Kane, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made. His genius can be equally seen in his radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds, based on the original story by H.G Wells who bears no relation to Orson. Welles along with his Mercury Theatre, established in the 1930’s caused the United States to go into a state of panic as the public thought Martians were invading the planet. A panic which Welles would later claim was unintentional.
As you can see Welles is a hugely iconic figure and to approach his character was a great challenge taken on by Richard Linkletter, director of ‘Me And Orson Welles’. The plot focuses on one week during the life of Welles. The Mercury Theatre in New York has its opening night coming up and Welles has chosen to take on a classic Shakespearian tragedy, Julius Caesar.
Previously unknown actor Christian McKay had the seemingly impossible task of performing as Orson Welles. And in this movie McKay did not walk onto the screen he exploded onto the screen, in what was I firmly believe one of the best onscreen performances of 2009. Critics have often commented on Welles’ unique nature of pure brilliance, in particular the tone of his spoken voice, and the way everything seemed to be some sort of performance. In the past I have seen archived footage of interviews with Welles; I have heard his radio dramatisations along with his acting in various motion pictures and when compared to the performance of McKay it is stunning. McKay could not have improved his performance, it was simply fantastic to see and I hope he is recognised for his outstanding achievement in this movie.
Zac Efron joined McKay as Richard, a high school student with a love of the arts and a hunger for knowledge who is however naive and venerable to the world. He starts his week studying the works of Shakespeare and ends it on the stage of the Mercury Theatre performing it. Efron who previously starred in High School Musical and Hairspray has taken on a much more mature role, than what we have seen in the past. It was a refreshing change in direction for Zac, who allows his acting skill to reach new heights. In my opinion with his role as Richard he has expanded his potential and concreted his place as an up and coming actor.
Another highlight of this production is the way in which the audience is seemingly transported back to 1937. The authenticity is truly remarkable; in the background during most scenes we can hear music of the era and never is the illusion distorted. For the hour and a half you sit in your seat you become part of that one week in the fall of 1937. You relive that week in the life of The Mercury Theatre, during a time of war and uncertainty.
I have been waiting a long time to see this movie and my long wait was well worth it. I could not be happier with the finished product and I send nothing but praise towards director Richard Linkletter and the rest of the cast. Linkletter does not rely on over the top Hollywood special effects to make the crowd impressed; instead he relies on pure character performance and representation of the 1930’s.
Based on these aspects, UFO Radio awards ‘Me And Orson Welles’ with a 10/10 rating.
The best ever love letter/horror story about the seductions and anxieties of life in the theater is the Canadian television show Slings & Arrows. This enchantingly bittersweet little film might be the second best. Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] and brought to the screen by Richard Linklater -- one of the masters of modern melancholy, if only for his diptych of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset -- this is an acerbic coming-of-age story, a warmly yearning nostalgia piece, and a smartly uproarious farce all in one. The year is 1937, and Orson Welles is about to launch Broadway’s first production of Shakespeare: a modern-dress fascist take on Julius Caesar. Into the histrionic fray of drama onstage and off at the newly formed Mercury Theater strolls 17-year-old Richard Samuels (the ever delightful Zac Efron: 17 Again), who charms and bluffs his way into a small role in the show... only to discover that his new boss is the master of the, well, mercurial. British actor Christian McKay absolutely steals the movie as Welles (he had previously portrayed the legend in a one-man stage show of his own) but the entire cast -- which also features the underappreciated Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky) as Welles’ business partner John Houseman, Claire Danes (Stardust) as the administrative wiz Richard woos, and Ben Chaplin (The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep) as a nervous Mark Antony to Welles’s Brutus -- is perfect. Bravo.
In 1937, the 22-year-old boy wonder Orson Welles took on the conventions of Broadway, staging a modern-dress, barebones production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with the director starring as Brutus. (Now that everything from Richard III to Tosca has been molded to a similarly dark, minimalist production design, it could be taken for granted how innovative his ideas were.) Welles, along with the Old Vic Theatre in England, was part of a theatrical movement delving into the Bard’s text for the characters’ psychological clues, a departure from the more presentational pageantry of the early 20th century. Richard Linklater, a man of film through and through, offers a sepia-toned valentine to this milestone of the American theater, but with a script that needed an out-of-town tryout.
Theatrical history takes a supporting role to the backstage shenanigans leading up to Julius Caesar’s opening night. Given that most in the audience who would be drawn to this lighthearted period piece already know the outcome, there’s no suspense as to whether Welles’s company will pull it together in time, despite little rehearsal and warring egos. By far, the best, and most vital, sequence is the condensed version of the politically relevant production.
So what we see instead is anticlimactic: a vain leading lady; a bed-hopping, tyrannical director impervious to any criticism; and the inevitable love triangle between Welles, his assistant Sonja, and the film’s narrator, 17-year-old Richard (a charisma-free Zac Efron), who bluffs his way into a walk-on role. The kid’s a last-minute replacement for an actor who had “personality problems” with Welles.
For a film laden with dialogue, Linklater doesn’t give his cast the extra shot of adrenaline it badly needs—the direction to pick up the pace. Instead, there are enough pauses in between the lines for the audience to virtually see the jokes and slangy banter fall flat. (Richard: “Fame, love, adventure, I can offer you all that…at the movies.”) Little of it is delivered with ease, except by newcomer Christian McKay as Welles, who certainly has the resonance of the star’s booming baritone and towering physicality. As the love interest Sonja, Claire Danes seems to be aware of the clichéd script’s shortcomings, and tries to overcome it by relying on her wide-eyed charm. With eyebrows raised and constantly smiling, she comes off as a little bit desperate, and plays almost every scene in the same manner.
Though the most famous and outsized personality in this fictionalized tale, Welles plays second fiddle to Efron’s Richard. Based on this performance, the jury is still out on whether there is life after High School Musical for the former teen idol—he’s far too laid back to be believable as a small-town boy bursting to make it big on Broadway, or for his character to be referred to as a “God created actor” by Welles.
Little White Lies
Cleverly employing the florid self-consciousness of the theatre world into which it offers us a glimpse, Me and Orson Welles elicits an irresistible grin.
With impeccable performances and lashings of wit allied to a knowing confection of industry drollery, Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age comedy romance – based on Robert Kaplow’s historical fiction novel – follows one extraordinary week in the life of teenage student Richard (Zac Efron). Plucked from the street by director Orson Welles (Christian McKay) to play a minor role in his notorious 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, Richard is thrust into the exciting, unpredictable whirlwind of Broadway. The result is a heady baptism of fire that proffers romance, heartbreak and the early buds of manhood.
From a wide-eyed Richard, whose desire for fame is rewarded with a one-line stage presence; to an aspiring writer who dreams of publication in The New Yorker; to a precociously talented Orson Welles on the cusp of greatness, the character medley of Linklater’s film suggests a nostalgic commitment to the materiality of the American Dream.
Firmly locating opportunity and reward in the realm of the metropolis, Me and Orson Welles hints at an impatience with the apparent limitations of the provincial, represented here by the stifling confines of Richard’s classroom walls. For Richard, practice trumps learning as the ticket to success and fulfilment, and it is outside the classroom, amidst the flurry of the city, that the lines of Julius Caesar finally come to life.
The narrative idealism of Linklater’s film sits in happy rapport with the spirit of prosperity that took hold of 1930s America as the despair of the Great Depression gave way to a period of hope. But this optimism imbues even the film’s darker moments with a saccharine lustre. That Richard’s love interest, Sonja (Claire Danes), effectively prostitutes herself by sleeping with influential directors to advance her career, for example, is a lesson he accepts with fleeting complaint. It is a disquieting reality that the audience is not asked to question. This tonal narrowness makes for an easy and enjoyable ride but the result is a film that is disappointingly scant on human depth.
In a moment of dramatic brilliance, this week's new film Me and Orson Welles encapsulates the artist's predicament: how to reveal the human condition while taking short respite from oneself.
Yet Christian McKay achieves this in a portrayal of the American actor-director so uncannily true that it makes me ponder on the burden of early genius. McKay's Welles is bombastic, vain, cruel, fantastically egocentric and in every way the despotic ruler of his tiny universe.
While Zac Efron (fictional Richard Samuels) proves to be far more than a pretty face, it seems hardly fair that McKay takes second billing. The Lancashire-born former concert pianist has spent much of his theatrical career portraying the overweening genius and recreates him to the furthermost corner of his brain. Quite simply, McKay has turned himself inside out to become so "Welles" that I fairly shivered watching the screen.
It takes a tyrant to understand one and this is surely why Caesar, Welles's 1937 interpretation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as a fascistic allegory, was such a landmark in modern theatre. Indeed, I am left wondering that had the great 20th century dictators also been consumed by their own personalities in youth, if the world would have been spared the conflagrations they inspired.
The film's storyline, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, tells how Richard spends a week with Welles as he prepares to launch Caesar at The Mercury Theatre. The movie, directed by Richard Linklater, has all the virtues of a first-class work of art. With its straight narrative, elegant screenplay, wonderful period costumes, sets, and music, it is most strikingly entertaining. My only caveat is that the first half-hour is rather wordy and younger audiences, unaware of the many historical references, may not see it through. Perhaps it's a show for oldies and film buffs, after all!
But I'm not surprised that McKay — and other actors like Simon Callow — have found Welles such an important source in expressing their own talent. Until I began writing this piece I knew little more of him than I did of McKay. I've now discovered that both his parents had died by the time he was 15 and that Maurice Bernstein, a Jewish physician from Chicago who had adored his mother, became his guardian.
This may explain why he thought he may be Jewish despite all evidence to the contrary, together with his loathing of racism and perhaps why he made his 1931 stage debut in Jew Suss.
I’d like to pretend that I went to see this film because of my deep interest in the life and times of Orson Welles, but I think this and this mean I wouldn’t be fooling anybody.
Honesty is (as usual) the best policy then, and I have to admit to knowing very little about the man and nothing at all about his Mercury Theatre group before I went in. Which is a shame as, if I’d been more of a Wellesian like one of my cinema buddies this week, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
The film looks at the week leading up to Welles’ production of Julius Caesar, through the eyes of teenager Richard, who lands a small but pivotal role in the play. It’s very much a film about theatre and theatre actors – so much so that it only really comes alive when we see the characters perform scenes from the play on opening night. You can tell that many of the cast are accomplished Shakespearean actors; those scenes are spine-tingling.
Regrettably, the rest of the film is not. Zac Efron is absolutely fine as Richard, Christian McKay is absolutely fine as Welles, everyone else is absolutely fine as everyone else, and if I’d known and cared about the real story behind the plot and the real people behind some of the characters – Welles, Joseph Cotten, Norman Lloyd, George Coulouris et al – I probably would have been delighted to see new life breathed into them. Instead, what I saw was a mannered, distractingly stylised (just how many check-patterned jackets can one costume design department have?) and very old-fashioned “the show must go on”-type piece. In terms of scale and atmosphere, it feels more like a tv movie than a big-screen one, and without any background knowledge, there just isn’t enough substance to the film for it to stand alone.
Apart from wide-eyed Richard, none of the main characters are particularly likeable, and the women come out of it especially badly; Richard’s doomed romance with the venal Sonja founders because she would cut out the poor boy’s kidneys for anyone willing to give her a job in showbiz, and his budding relationship with consolation prize Grace is unconvincing because, frankly, she’s a numptie.
The ending of the movie is singularly unsatisfying too, and for me, thoroughly depressing, although I know some reviewers have interpreted it differently. Maybe it’s because they’re more Welles-literate than I am. Which is fair enough. This film’s for them. Not for me.
To be perfectly honest, the only reason I saw Me & Orson Welles in the cinema at all is because it was part of SIFF’s Awards Buzz series. I really wanted to see the other two titles (A Single Man & The Young Victoria), and I am a sucker for a laminated pass. So it goes. I mean, it’s basically a Zac Efron movie, and he can’t act his way out of a paper bag. I would have seen it on DVD however, because I had heard great things about Christian McKay’s performance as Welles, and right they were. He’s magnificent in a role that would have been so easy to tip into caricature or scenery-chewing.
Unfortunately, Efron is the center of the thing, and you can just see the thinking behind it, as if a certain demographic will, like, totally go see a movie about Orson fucking Welles if only it has a *dreamy* lead. Um. No. So what we’re stuck with is glimpses of what could have been a great movie about Welles’ famous modern dress production of Julius Caesar, teases of what a film about that huge personality might have been, and then we’re yanked back to Teen Beat 1937.
Two moments at the end encapsulate the ridiculousness: first, a needle drop of extreme obviousness where “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” plays over Efron looking through clippings about the show, and second, that of course Efron’s English class has been studying the entire works of William Shakespeare, and so Efron winds up reciting (badly) a speech from the play, to great acclaim from his fellow students. Whatever.
To be fair to my motives, I had also rather been looking forward to seeing Claire Danes again, which is a genetic requirement for anyone who grew up on “My So-Called Life”, but the awfulness of the Efron pulled her down. Plus, the relationship between their characters skeeved me the heck out. He’s 17! She’s my age! Ew. Just, ew.
I must also admit that I enjoyed Zoe Kazan as the more age-appropriate love interest, who seems to do nothing but hang out at museums and attempt writing for the New Yorker. She was charming. And Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd was great fun as well. They & McKay deserved a better film, and Linklater, who has done glorious things in the past, should have given it to them.
Finally, I spotted two obvious typing errors in the final credits, which seems just ridiculous. I don’t even read credits that closely! Fail.
Blog: Victim of the Time
YOU THERE! Yes, you! Don't think I can't see you, I've got eyes in the back of my head. Come and sit down. Be quiet! What I've got to say to you is much more important than whatever you've got to do. It always will be. How can I respect you if you're not fully committed to this thing? Good. That's better. Now pay attention. I'm only going to say this once.
You must see Me and Orson Welles. No, no, it's no masterpiece - I can easily admit when things aren't perfect, you know, for often it's the imperfections that make things so palatable to the human emotions. It was always going to be the way with Richard Linklater, anyway - the man's style is too loose, too free to ever let a tightly contained masterpiece out of his soul, and here that's even tempered by the rather obvious structuring of the piece. You can't blame him for that, though. He had to work with the sub-par writing he was given - the man's a director, a visionary, and it's a shame he has such amateurs around him. I'd never let such things pass, naturally.
It feels a little under-budgeted, a little too enclosed to really engage on a sensory level, but we've all had to work with money constraints, haven't we. It all works with the theme of creating a masterwork out of rag-tag bits and disasters. At least it looks good - that Dick Pope's been around for a while, always making things look stripped-back in an attractive sort of way (the best way to be, really, don't you agree?), and he never gets enough credit. Give those costumers, credit, too, especially for undermining Zac Efron's naive cockiness by putting him in dungarees (good lord) and shirts that are miles too big for him. Nice details, but they don't go unnoticed by my keen eye. Nothing ever does. (Stop fidgeting.)
Then there's that Zac Efron. Too pretty for his own good, that boy is. He usurps the whole thing, almost, just by existing. I'm not denying I'd like a thing with him on the side, really, although no one of us has got into his pants yet so I wouldn't bother trying. (Plus if you do I'll make sure you never work in this town again. SIT DOWN.) He's good, though; he cleverly uses the arrogance it's easy to see in him to deepen the character's youthful, misguided arrogance. And really, Christian McKay is so strong, so unmatched in magnificence that even Zac's face can't run away with the picture. And I've not even mentioned that Claire Danes commits her easiest, most engaging performance in several years to her part, or that the ensemble cast makes the film feel even more alive. I see a lot of myself in McKay, actually - the fearlessness, the passion, the raw magnetism. He even manages to make the obligatory "see, this guy isn't a monster really!" moments work by carving them from the exact same piece as the rest of his performance, and muddies whether this moment is really you seeing Welles' soul or merely another manipulation. Without him, the film would be severely lacking; it'd simply be called Me, and that's a ridiculous title. Who's so self-obsessed they'd see a film called Me?
WHAT DO YOU MEAN "I WOULD"? You're fired. Never show your face around here again. I don't have time for amateurs like you.
Hooray, Hooray, December is here!
To kick off the festive season I decided to go see a film from the director of School of Rock, starring teenage pretty boy Zac Efron. Hardly sounds encouraging. As with many times this year, I was pleasantly surprised with the results.
Set in 1930s New York, young Richard Samuels (Efron) can't believe his luck when he manages to land the role of Lucillus in Broadway's first Shakespearean production Julius Caesar, directed by none other than the legendary Orson Welles (Christian McKay). From this moment on his life is completely transformed, learning from extraordinary actors and catching the eye of a career-driven production assistant, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes).
From the moment the film began you can quite easily see this isn't High School Musical, nor is it cashing in on the cheap thrills and Jack Black humour of School Of Rock. No, this had a very classy, elegant tone fitting of the peroid. The same can also be said for Zac Efron. It was perhaps a bold move for the director to created such a beautifully imagined peroid drama, yet cast a teenage mega-star in the lead role, whose previous experience was essentially a trilogy of 'Straight-to-DVD' Disney films.
He was nothing short of brilliant, filled with confidence, heart and putting in tonnes of effort to hold his own among more established and experienced actors around him. This, of course, mirrored his character, Richard, a boy who loved to romanticize the world, thankful for just being apart of something so monumental.
What makes Me and Orson Welles so refreshing isn't just one break out performance, but two. Before this film people had at least heard of Zac Efron, for better or worse, you can decide. However, very few people would have heard of British actor, Christian McKay, but after his performance as Orson Welles, I have a feeling you will be seeing a lot more of him.
It's a big ask for any unknown actor to take on the role, the persona, the sheer presence of someone like Welles but to deliver it with such a masterstroke was nothing short of remarkable. His style, his delivery, his passion, everything was amazing. Efron was good, but McKay was excellent. If he does not make a Best Actor shortlist at the Globes or Oscars in a couple of months time then there is genuinely no justice. His performance made me want to watch it all over again
Besides the two lead performances, the support cast was stellar, made up of hard working actors such as Ben Chaplin, James Tupper, Leo Bill and Eddie Marsan - whose on screen banter and love/hate relationship with McKay made for some of the best moments in the film. Obviously it goes without saying that the beautiful Claire Danes was a joy to watch, her chemistry with Efron was natural and at times even heart-warming, despite the slight age difference. The film though wasn't 100% perfect, as the story itself, at times, lacked cohesion, with no real conclusion to speak of. This perhaps echoed Welles' real life adaptation of Julius Caesar judging from historical sources.
A refreshing, upbeat and highly enjoyable peroid drama. Zac Efron finally announces himself as a serious and creditable actor. The movie however belongs to Christian McKay, who should be someone to watch out for in the years ahead. On the basis of his perfect rendition of Orson Welles, he is capable of incredible things. Overall, Me And Orson Welles acts as an insightful, provocative entry into the life of working in the theatre industry, and the extreme personalities that go along with it. Whether it stands the test of time as other films of similar setting such as the wonderful 1948 classic, The Red Shoes, however remains to be seen.
Blog: in the mood for blog
Richard Linklater is one of the most chameleonic directors working in American cinema today, a man who can make a comedy smash like School of Rock one year and an initmate romantic drama like Before Sunset the next. His latest is his first British production, Me and Orson Welles, about a schoolboy named Richard who gets thrown into Welles' now legendary production of Julius Caesar at the last minute. Starring Zac Efron and Christian McKay as the eponymous characters (respectively), this is the latest in a long line of films about theatrical productions (and serves as a thematic sequel to Cradle Will Rock as this follows Welles' project following that film's focus).
Efron does a very solid job in the lead, he sleepwalks through some of it, but when he needs to he delivers. Claire Danes as the object of his affections is her usual dependable self and Christian McKay does a good fist of tackling Welles. James Tupper's Joseph Cotton was very nicely done but the most natural performance though is probably that of Zoe Kazan, she bookends the film and has a scene in the middle of it where she brings a lot of light and life to a small, but significant character.
Despite his performance, one of the biggest problems with the film is the casting of McKay. Orson Welles was famously 26 when he directed Citizen Kane in 1941, so having the wunderkind director, four years before being played by a man so clearly in at least his mid-thirties is a problem. Not only do lines like "he's young" jar, one rather important plot point about Efron taking offence to being called "junior" and "kid" emphasises this. It's there in the script because Welles was 22, calling a 17 year old "kid", and quite rightly that is condescending. Here with McKay being easily old enough to be Efron's (and almost old enough to be his own) character's father the script doesn't gel with the casting (think how ill-advised Keira Knightley's looks being labelled "merely tolerable" by Matthew Macfadyen in Pride and Prejudice was), and it actually undermines it and muddies it dramatically because Welles' defence of it being a term of endearment was clearly not true on paper but is rather plausible given his almost paternal relationship. Indeed scenes take a different tone in general, when Welles mentions that Richard reminds him of himself, it should be something very close and recent whereas with McKay it takes on an almost-forgotten reminiscence, many aspects of their relationship are rendered less believable by the unintended age-gap (particularly their eventual tug of war with Danes).
On top of that, Linklater cannot drive the film along with sufficient energy, and never fully meshes the onstage scenes with off, by which when the final performance is shown it doesn't fully resonate with what's been seen in the build up to it or spark in its own right, the way something like Cradle Will Rock or Topsy-Turvy does. Also Welles' characterisation as someone who cannot accept anyone disagreeing with him is not soundly drawn out. Richard only gets the job in the first place because someone stood up to Welles, and when he does that that forms the major basis of the drama in the third act, yet in the middle another character tells Welles he's wrong and publically disagrees with him and ... nothing, it's not consistent.
Overall the film is a more than decent watch. It's quite consistently amusing with lots of in-jokes from the time, and while the basic arc of the story may not be the most original it plays out well. The ensemble does a fine job and while the depiction of time and place sometimes feels like its trying too hard it's not too bothersome. It is though extremely diverting and does command attention throughout and is a fine piece of escapism. When Efron says the line "sometimes you remember a week for the rest of your life", anyone who's seen Before Sunrise or Before Sunset knows exactly why Linklater was probably drawn to the piece, and he does a fine enough job with what he's given, just not an exceptional one.