It is difficult to recapture the excitement Orson Welles generated 50 years ago among cinephiles and serious theatregoers. When George Coulouris joined the Bristol Old Vic Company in 1950 after a lengthy sojourn in the States my fellow sixth-formers and I were thrilled beyond measure to have in our city an actor who'd played Mark Antony opposite Welles in the Mercury company's fabled 1937 modern dress production of Julius Caesar and had a leading role in Citizen Kane. Yet none of us had seen Citizen Kane which had been out of distribution since shortly after its opening in 1941. We only knew of him through a few film appearances, most notably The Third Man, and his reputation for brilliance, wit and innovation, and what a few years later we'd learn to call charisma. Satyajit Ray said that one of the great regrets of his life was being out of Calcutta when Kane had its brief three-day screening there; one of mine is queuing at a London theatre in 1951 to see Welles in Othello and failing to get in.
This exhilaration came back to me this week while seeing Richard Linklater's engrossing film version of Robert Kaplow's charming novel about a fictitious 18-year-old schoolboy briefly becoming a member of Welles's Mercury Theatre in 1937. In a very personal way, the experience was enhanced by the curious fact that much of the film was shot in a theatre in Douglas, Isle of Man, where I spent several summers in the earlier 1940s, though I can't remember anything I saw on stage there.
The film is presented through the eyes of Richard Samuels, a bright high school senior from New Jersey, in love with theatre, cinema, literature, radio and popular culture, attractively played by Zac Efron, star of the High School Musical series. One day he crosses the Hudson to look around Manhattan. First he meets in a music store Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), a deeply serious girl his own age with literary ambitions. Then he strikes up a conversation with actors outside the Mercury Theatre on 41st Street, which has just been taken over by Welles's company after their departure from the government-sponsored Federal Theatre. Suddenly Welles himself arrives, immaculately turned out in a homburg and three-piece suit, and he engages in badinage with his actors and the naive, fearless Richard. The upshot is that after cross-questioning the teenager, the mercurial and capricious head of the Mercury hires Richard to play Brutus's young servant Lucius in the play that is scheduled to open in a week's time.
Welles hands him over to his attractive young assistant, Sonya (Claire Danes), to be inducted into the ways of the company. She's a sophisticated, highly ambitious young woman, determined to use anyone to get ahead in showbusiness, her immediate aim being to get a job with David O Selznick, Hollywood's hottest producer. She stands in contrast to Gretta, the idealistic writer, and together they represent key facets of the 1930s. Meanwhile, Welles in his role of teacher takes Richard under his wing, demanding he accompany him on his money-making trips to radio stations, using an ambulance to make his way through the traffic. There's a marvellous scene of Welles arriving just in time for a broadcast, largely unacquainted with the script and taking off into an eloquent improvisation that baffles, infuriates and then impresses his fellow actors.
Linklater's film is about the education of a suburban boy in the ways of the world, and the dramatic core is a realistic and persuasive account of the making of the Mercury's Julius Caesar and of the outrageous Welles at work. The modern dress production, with its dark green uniforms and Sam Browne belts, raised-arm salutes and a Caesar with a strong resemblance to Mussolini, is designed to make audiences think of Italy and fascist dictators. But Welles himself, playing Brutus, the intelligent, conscience-stricken liberal, is something of a dictator in the way he savagely cuts Shakespeare's text (re-arranged and pared down to 90 minutes), orders everyone around, and takes credit for his collaborators' work.
Never before have I seen a theatrical production so brilliantly re-created, and for this major credit must go to the British cinematographer Dick Pope, who makes us feel we're there on the historic night. But at the end the show belongs to Christian McKay, the fourth and best actor to play Welles on screen. When we first see him the resemblance is merely passing, but after five minutes we think we're in the presence of the arrogant, irresistible young Orson himself, such is the accuracy of the body language, the facial expressions and above all that resonant voice, purring and booming. When after the first night curtain he asks, "How the hell do I top this?", the complexity of his future life flashes before us. Most of the other performances are convincing – Ben Chaplin as the perennially pessimistic Coulouris, Leo Bill as the puckish Norman Lloyd, and James Tupper as the suave lady's man Joseph Cotten, who figures in a lovely joke when in an ironic re-enactment of the most famous image from The Third Man he emerges as eavesdropper from a pitch-black doorway. The one real failure is a miscast Eddie Marsan, a specialist in sad losers, as Welles's closest associate and equal, the haughty, confident John Houseman, one of the great figures of the 20th-century arts.
I always have to be bigger than life. It’s a fault in my nature,” Orson Welles once said. He was larger than life in more ways than one, as I can vouchsafe, having been trapped in a lift between his immense frame and almost equally large doberman at the San Sebastian Festival not long before he died.
There was nothing wrong with the lift. It was just that none of us could move when it came to a halt. “Is this how it all ends?” Welles said before we managed to extricate ourselves.
Richard Linklater’s entertaining film is about how it all began. It is a fictionalised account of his legendary production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the hastily refurbished Comedy Theatre, on 41st Street, New York, in 1937.
To meet Welles’s ambitions, the theatre was retitled the Mercury, the play renamed Caesar: Death of a Dictator, the text shortened to a bare 90 minutes, the Roman senators dressed in fascist uniforms and the stage covered with platforms, steps and ramps.
Added to that, Welles devised a series of open traps which led down to the understage area and scared his cast witless. At one point, following a blackout, Welles — who played a suitably declamatory Brutus — fell through one of the traps and was rendered unconscious.
Fortunately, the opening night was a triumph and Welles, a mere 24 at the time, proclaimed a genius.
Linklater’s well-researched if occasionally doubtful rendition of all this is based on the novel by Robert Kaplo. It was made in the beautiful Gaiety Theatre on the Isle of Man and tells the story through Richard Samuels (Zac Efron, the star of High School Musical), a young actor used and then abused by Welles during the production.
Growing up fast in the shadow of the great man he adored, he is virtually our commentator — and the film succeeds largely because the device works so well, telling us a lot about Welles and a lot more about the mixture of purgatory and heaven, neuroticism and exuberance of theatrical life.
Though Welles required himself to be extravagantly larger than anyone else, he says here, in one of his quieter moments, that he is an actor because his painful real self could disappear into the parts he plays.
Christian McKay, who plays the young tyro, gets him better than one could have dared to hope. With no overplaying he gives us the constant drip, drip, drip of a personality who brooked no argument, had absolute confidence in his own dominance and knew how to wheedle his actors into giving performances which, while they never matched his own, effectively basked within the confines of his glory.
McKay has a supremely difficult task in steering his way through a part that teeters on the edge of absurdity (Welles avoided the traffic by going about in a chauffeured ambulance). But he manages brilliantly. Everyone else is more than adequate, and has to thank a witty screenplay from Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo and clever direction from Linklater for enabling them to play famous people with a proper respect but a fruitful élan.
Claire Danes is the ambitious older woman who fascinates Efron’s green young man and allows him to bed her before moving off to catch more valuable fish in the shape of Welles himself and the Hollywood studio head David O Selznick. Ben Chaplin plays Mercury regular George Coulouris, Eddie Marsan is the great Mercury co-founder John Houseman and James Tupper is Joseph Cotten — who later became an A-list Hollywood star.
This is only a celebratory comedy in essence, lacking the depth which would have made us recall the sad fact that people like Welles eventually destroy themselves. But comedy is never any good when it simply goes for laughs — and Linklater and his company have managed something of serious intent very well. Anyone who has been anywhere near actors and the theatre will almost certainly agree with that.
Four stars out of five stars
Efron and Danes are both great and there's good work from a talented supporting cast that includes Eddie Marsan (as producer John Houseman), Ben Chaplin (as actor George Coulouris) and rising star Zoe Kazan (Revolutionary Road) as Gretta Adler, an aspiring playwright who befriends Richard in a record shop early on. However, the film is roundly stolen by Christian McKay (who'd previously played Welles in a one-man show), in a terrific, jaw-droppingly accurate performance (the physical resemblance alone is extraordinary) that is sure to land him a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar time.
The script is excellent, crackling with great dialogue and perfectly capturing both the flavour of the 1930s and the feel of a backstage theatre company, whilst never losing sight of the central coming-of-age story. To that end, it's both emotionally engaging and frequently laugh-out-loud funny; it's also utterly charming in a pleasingly old-fashioned way.
Impressively directed, superbly written and brilliantly acted, Me and Orson Welles is an utterly charming, thoroughly entertaining drama that's sure to pick up a nomination or two come Oscar time. Highly recommended.
Four out of five stars
Richard Linklater’s first period movie since 1998’s The Newton Boys hangs its hat on the vibrant, feverish New York theatre world of the 1930s.
Stage-struck young drama student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is eager to make his mark on Broadway, and where better than at the Mercury Theatre, where genius wunderkind Orson Welles is rehearsing his forthcoming fascist-uniform production of Julius Caesar?
Welles is one of those roles it’s hard for an actor to screw up; look at Danny Huston, Vincent D’Onofrio or any of the others who’ve played him. Yet Brit actor Christian McKay is maybe the best yet.
The physical similarity’s there, but so too are the qualities that made Welles at once infuriating and irresistible – the charm, the towering ego, the bullying, the lightning-flash brilliance. In McKay’s performance, you can see just what would make Welles great – and then bring him so low.
Inevitably, beside Welles/McKay everyone else tends to pale. Efron’s adequate as Richard – perky, but a little bland. As his love interest, Claire Danes feels awkward having to play someone young enough to think a man of 30 is “really old”.
The pick of the rest is James Tupper, who channels the cool, self-mocking humour – and sexually predatory grin – of Joseph Cotten.
The period detail rings true, and Linklater catches the backstage atmosphere well – the chaos, panic, bitchiness, grandstanding and the mounting catalogue of disasters that just might turn into gold come opening night.
The midsection goes slack at times, but for the most part Me And Orson Welles entertains.
What’s lacking is the psychological depth and involvement that Linklater brought to Before Sunrise and Dazed And Confused – qualities also missing from The Newton Boys. Maybe period drama just isn’t his thing?
A diverting period comedy-drama, but slight compared to Linklater at his sharpest.
Worth catching, though, for newcomer Christian McKay’s magisterial portrayal of the young Welles in all his moody, manipulative glory.
Friends, Romans, High School Musicallers, lend me your ears; I come to praise Zac Efron, not to bury him.
Forgive the bard paraphrasing, but fans of the hottest teenage heart-throb this side of Twilight can breathe easy - the boy has a future outside Disneyland.
That said, his first foray into grown-up movies is but a dramatic footnote next to the career-making performance of his co-star Christian McKay.
Efron is Richard, a confident teenager who suddenly finds himself treading the boards of New York’s prestigious Mercury Theater with none other than director, star, and all-round egomaniac Orson Welles (McKay).
Citizen Kane is four years away, but everyone is already in awe of Welles who dominates every aspect of his latest production. He may play Brutus, but he acts like Caesar.
It’s an eye-opening experience for Richard as he shares the rarefied air with angst-ridden English thesp George Coulouris (Chaplin), resident diva Muriel Brassler (Reilly), and serial womaniser Joseph Cotten (James Tupper).
But the ingenue learns his most valuable lessons from aspiring actress Sonja Jones (Danes), the slightly older yet vastly more worldly production assistant who takes him under her wing and steals his heart. Alas, his boyish charms cannot compete with the lure of David O Selznick.
He wouldn't get that with nice girls of his own age like budding writer Gretta (Zoe 'granddaughter of Elia' Kazan).
Versatile director Linklater takes the opportunities presented in Robert Kaplow’s fact-dusted novel to combine the sophisticated romantic streak he showed in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset with the alright-on-the-night shenanigans of School Of Rock.
It's a thoroughly enjoyable wheeze, bobbing along to a jaunty score (cue Jools Holland cameo) and blessed with moments of knowing wit.
There's a perfectly placed homage to Welles’ appearance in The Third Man, and when the swoonsomely pretty Efron asks Danes "What's it like to be a beautiful woman?", you suspect it's a rhetorical question.
But while Zac takes top billing, the film belongs to McKay. So completely does the lesser-known Lancastrian capture Welles' effortless charm and colossal ego, he should be gilded in Academy gold and paraded round the streets of Bury on an open-top bus.
Yet despite his spittle-spraying dominance, the entire cast (actual and fictional) pulls together to make it an opening night to remember.
A jolly good show all round.
Four out of five stars
Teenage fans of Zac Efron will be wondering: who the hell is Orson Welles? While fans of Orson Welles will be wondering: who the hell is Zac Efron? Yes, after years of adults and the young sharing a common pop culture, the generation gap of the 1960s is back. That said, a cynic might claim that Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles is merely a sophisticated version of High School Musical, the Disney Channel phenomenon that made Efron a teen idol. Both works share a thematic concern with the drives and showbiz dreams of the young; both offer the spectacle of innocence stepping into the spotlight.
This is the story of Richard (Efron), a 17-year-old schoolboy who dreams of being a great actor. But it’s also the story of another young man, a 22-year-old called Orson Welles, who dreamt of a greatness that knew no bounds. By a combination of chance and quick thinking, Richard manages to persuade Welles (Christian McKay) to give him a role in what will be the famous 1937 Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar; he lands the part of Lucius.
Richard is taken under the wing of Welles’s pretty and ambitious assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), who gives him a crash course in the most crucial thing an actor with the company can know: how to handle Welles. Lesson one: never criticise. Lesson two: never criticise.
The film, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, is more than a coming-of-age saga set in a theatre; it’s a coming-of-age saga for the American theatre. Welles, who is directing the play, wants to drag it into the modern era of doing Shakespeare in modern dress. What we see are the rough realities of struggling against all the odds, including the crazed wilfulness of Welles himself, to get the show ready for opening night. For theatre buffs who know about that era, this is a treat. When did you last hear a character in a film refer to the great New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson?
The trouble with films about the theatre is that they tend to be too theatrical. For example, when we meet the Mercury Theater’s members, they keep breaking out into songs and hammy routines, in that irritating “We’re zany actors” way. But they settle down, and we get a behind-the-curtain peep at the dramas and crazed divas.
Linklater has managed to get the historical and social details right, but he fails to capture New York’s rhythm, that Broadway zippiness of the late 1930s. So, although the action covers only one week in Richard’s life, it seems like a couple of months. The weak link is actually the character of Richard. His love of theatre is declared, but isn’t really shown. Likewise, his love for Sonja, which leads to a big row with Welles, isn’t convincingly developed. It’s not clear what she sees in him, other than a cute smile.
The screenplay, by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, gives us Welles the genius and Welles the monster. We see him charming, alienating, abusing, praising, dazzling and disgusting those around him. Although here he is only 22, and not yet the famous director of Citizen Kane, he moves with the confidence and charisma of one who has already conquered the world.
McKay does a perfect imitation of Welles — he’s got that voice, those eyes, the eyebrows that rise like they’re proposing a toast — but he doesn’t get under the man’s skin and into his psyche. It’s not his fault, but the screenplay’s. At one point, Welles tries to explain the psychology of the actor, how it gives him a welcome “reprieve from myself”, but nowhere in the rest of the film is this need articulated or explored. Was Welles aware of his own monstrosity? We never really see the private man, only the consummate performer on the stage of life.
Of course, playing alongside such a big personality as Welles’s is hard, but Efron gets it all wrong. He captures the innocent vacuity of a young man, but not the vulnerability and self-doubt. His passivity comes across as quiet confidence, as if his cuteness can conquer all. In one scene, Richard sets off the fire alarm, which leads to the flooding of the theatre a few days before opening night. Welles threatens to destroy the career of whoever did it, but Richard never shows the terror you would expect of someone about to have his dream destroyed. We should be rooting for poor Richard, but his fate leaves us cold.
Of course, the unstated irony of the film will probably be lost on Efron’s fans. For, while it might seem that Richard is the victim of early promise betrayed, it was Welles who, despite his many accomplishments, never really lived up to the promise we see here.
Three out of five stars
You can’t blame Linklater for grabbing the casting equivalent of a goose full of golden eggs. On paper, signing up the High School Musical heart-throb Zac Efron for the key role of the aspiring teen actor Richard must have seemed like the ideal way to inject a bit of sex into this backstage movie. But Efron is immediately out of his depth. Everything about him feels anachronistic, particularly when so much care has been lavished on the late-1930s design and tonal details elsewhere.
Richard is a stage-struck kid who manages to hustle his way into the Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, directed by a young Orson Welles (Christian McKay). He’s smitten by the greasepaint, the graft — and by the Welles protégée Sonja (Claire Danes). But in pursuing his crush, he incurs the wrath of the director. Authentic backstage bustle is essential in a film about theatre, but here it feels forced and scripted. The freshness and energy of Linklater at his best (Before Sunset) or even second best (A Scanner Darkly) is absent. McKay gives a powerhouse performance as the charismatic monster and master manipulator Welles, but he’s the only lifeblood in an anaemic picture. Next to him, Efron barely registers.
Two out of five stars
Having danced his way through three High School Musicals, Zac Efron clearly decided it was time he showed he's not merely a pretty face, but has genuine acting range to go with it.
Set in the 1930s in the build-up to a Broadway production of Julius Caesar, the irony is that once again the young star is in a film about putting on a show. It may not come with HSM's candy-coloured hues, while its characters aren't all squeaky-clean teens, but it's still essentially the same movie. And it's not very good.
The dead-eyed dreamboat plays drama student Richard, who's offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work under arch thespian Orson Welles (an impressive Christian McKay) as he prepares to stage the Shakespearian play at the Mercury Theatre. With a small part in the production, the lad is soon swept up in rehearsals, backstage bitching and having to deal with the famed actor's volcanic temper, while jaunty older woman Sonja (Claire Danes) provides the love interest.
As opening night approaches, the big question on everyone's lips is whether the show will be a huge hit or a clunking misfire.
The film falls into the latter category, mostly because it's so dull. While some actors have praised the movie for its accurate portrayal of backstage life, if you haven't trodden the boards it's much harder to get caught up in the A-to-B dramas facing the troupe, or Richard and Sonja's affair.
Efron, pretty much playing HSM's Troy Bolton but in period gear, also doesn't feel right. He will, of course, put a lot of extra bums on seats.
Still, at least the film looks the part, painted in a palette of subdued browns and greys, while it's good to see Danes again, even though she's never fulfilled her potential after Romeo+Juliet.
Where Me And Orson Welles truly succeeds, though, is with McKay.
A British actor who has just a handful of stage and TV credits, it's impossible to take your eyes off him as he brings his character to roaring, tyrannical life.
Two out of five
Having already proved he can do comedy (really jolly well) in 17 Again, adorable High School Musical star Zac Efron continues to show he’s more than just a bite-sized sex muffin by starring in this smart art house/indie crossover.
Not that playing a pretty, wannabe 18-year-old actor involved in backstage romantic entanglements is exactly a giant leap.
He’s the ‘Me’ of the title, a wide-eyed ingénue who charms his way into the minor role of lute carrier in a hot 1937 production of Julius Caesar by convincing its wildly charismatic, skirt-chasing director, Orson Welles (newcomer Christian McKay – the real star here), that he’s an ace ukulele player.
Once in the door, he spots his next challenge: getting into the knickers of Welles’s career-hungry assistant (Claire Danes) – with pleasingly non-pat results.
It’s astonishing to think the already bullish, cigar-chomping Welles, who had yet to direct Citizen Kane, is only 22 here, something this latest intelligent, yet highly accessible, film by director Richard Linklater (The School Of Rock, Before Sunrise) doesn’t make enough of.
But then this story isn’t really about Welles. It’s about Efron. Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel, it’s a slight, if delightful, blend of coming-of-age tale meets ‘let’s put on the show right here’. Sparkly, if unmemorable, its unusually old-fashioned charm makes Me And Orson Welles more like something Efron’s army of tiny, squealing fans would take their mums to – rather than the other way around.
Three out of five stars
he distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success. Nobody is greater testament to that than Orson Welles – broadcaster, actor and director who ended his days bloated, impoverished and doing voiceover work on advertisements for any toxic product with the promotional budget to employ him. Filmmakers of more mediocre, less incendiary talents have long been fascinated with Welles. He’s appeared as an incidental character in Ed Wood (Vincent D’Onofrio but voice dubbed by Maurice laMarche), The Cradle Will Rock (Angus MacFadyen), Fade to Black (Danny Huston) and The Simpsons (LaMarche).
Me and Orson Welles returns, like The Cradle Will Rock, to the creation of the monster that Welles became. Set over the space of one week, the film’s time frame is guided by the rehearsals and first night of the Mercury Theatre’s legendary production of Ceasar, directed by Welles in 1937. In to this theatrical bear pit enters young artisan Richard (Zac Efron) who lands himself the role of Lucius. Between Welles’ explosions and sexy assistant Sonja (Clare Danes) it’s going to be a week he won’t forget in a hurry.
Richard Linklater’s likeably frothy behind-the-scenes drama has a lot to commend it, from Christian McKay’s pitch perfect performance as Welles to screenwriter Holly Gent Palmo’s assertions that this was the real birth of modern theatre. That the film doesn’t ultimately work is a structural problem, with outsider protagonist Richard’s situation failing to convince in any way. Still, the performances for the most part are good and the period detail is fantastic.
Three out of five
"This is the story of one week in my life. I was seventeen. It was the week I slept in Orson Welles's pajamas. It was the week I fell in love. And it was the week I changed my middle name - twice." This is the opening line of a charming novel by Robert Kaplow about Welles' famous Mercury Theater production of "Julius Ceasar," which has now become a charming film from Richard Linklater ("School of Rock," "Before Sunrise"), starring "High School Musical" heartthrob Zac Efron.
Welles is played by British theater actor Christian McKay, who starred as Welles in a play called "Rosebud" and perfectly captures the legend's cadences and presence without making it an imitation. It is a true performance, and one that astutely conveys Welles' galvanizing talent -- and the infuriating single-mindedness that may be necessary to achieve his brilliant productions but never looks back at its shattering effect.
Efron plays Richard, a high school senior Welles impulsively brings on to play Lucius in the production that is about to open. Claire Danes is Sonja, Welles' ambitious assistant. And the Mercury repertory company, many of whom would go on to become established theater and movie stars, are there for fans of "Citizen Kane" and the 1930's to appreciate: Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). The tumult and brinksmanship that goes into any theatrical production are deftly presented, and as we see everything through the eyes of Richard, a bright, confident, dedicated, but inexperienced newcomer, we appreciate the brutal demands but also the passionate commitment, and the thrill, of presenting something that everyone knows will be an unforgettable experience for the performers and the audience.
Efron turns out to be a real star, with enormous screen charisma that works well for the character, making us understand why Welles and Sonja are drawn to him. But he turns out to be a real actor, too, very much part of an ensemble, with one of his most impressive achievements how effectively he blends in so seamlessly. Utterly effortless, whether talking to another teenager with artistic ambition (Zoe Kazan as aspiring writer Gretta) or asking an older woman for a date, Efron is always engaging.
We know from the beginning that Richard will be disappointed; that is inevitable in any coming of age story. But we are confident that he will also develop the perspective to make the most from what he has learned. The glimpses of the actual modern-dress production, gorgeously staged, resonate and inspire. We leave looking forward to seeing more from Welles, and from Efron, McKay, and Linklater as well.
HIGH School Musical hunk Zac Efron is the ostensible star of this glorious biopic, playing the 'Me' of the title.
But the real discovery in what is an astonishing breakthrough performance is Christian McKay as the young Orson Welles, already a giant of the American stage at age 22.
Set in 1937, Richard Linklater's beautiful period drama places Welles at the
heart of a Broadway production as he single-handedly reworks Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for his Mercury Theatre company.
Into this heady atmosphere of egos, love affairs, roués and intellect comes Richard Samuels (Efron), a gauche teenager who watches goggle-eyed as Welles, a charming, bombastic, arrogant genius, makes theatrical history.
Based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, this is a witty romp through seven days in the life of a nobody who finds himself standing in the shadow of a titan.
Linklater presents a faultless evocation of a lost age, employing an ensemble cast – Ben Chaplin, Claire Danes, Kelly Reilly, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan, James Tupper – to recreate a time that, like Welles himself, has passed in to legend.
"I am Orson Welles! I own the store!" roars McKay at one point. This is a performance bordering on brilliance. It surpasses impersonation and avoids caricature. As an interpretation of Orson Welles, before he became seduced by his own image, it is matchless.
Linklater allows McKay more than a few nods to the real Welles. At one point the boy genius throws a live radio broadcast into chaos by ad-libbing lines from The Magnificent Ambersons.
Later he casually edits Julius Caesar to meet his own requirements. Always it is clear we are witnessing the birth of a cinematic wünderkind (and supreme egotist) who was as much tyrant as he was benign demagogue.
Linklater also gives an inkling of Welles's future. Here, in
the late '30s (even before his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938) Welles had the world at his feet. He was a visionary and a revolutionary.
Yet there are telltale signs that it will all go so spectacularly awry. Richard Samuels sees it at first hand and witnesses Welles's largesse – and his treachery – from close range.
A magnificent portrait of time remembered, Me and Orson Welles should be required viewing for any serious student of film.
This is... (full review)
IF modern viewers remember Orson Welles at all these days it is as the outsize caricature with the deep-barreled voice who told us all about "probably the best lager in the world". But before he became a parody of himself, Welles was the brightest star of the theatrical and film world, deserving of the title "genius".
Before his 27th birthday he made the landmark movie Citizen Kane, broadcast a radio version of War of the Worlds that panicked an entire nation, and founded a theatre company that set new standards in stage production.
Never has the description "over achiever" been more aptly applied.
Me And Orson Welles captures the man at the pinnacle of his success, as his famous Mercury Theatre Company prepares for its opening Shakespearean production.
It also gives us an insight into the flaws that would eventually result in Welles' downfall – his towering ego, his vanity, his womanising and flagrant disregard of who he trampled on.
But when his star burned the brightest his work was of staggering quality and here we see the devotees who hung on to the coat-tails of his genius – including long-time collaborators such as Citizen Kane actor Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and actor and producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan).
The film is seen through the eyes of a teenage boy (Zac Efron) who gets pulled into the Welles vortex before being spat out after a row over a girl (Claire Danes).
Filmed almost exclusively in the Isle of Man (standing in for New York) this is a labour of love for director Richard Linklater, who manages to illuminate Welles' greatness without sanitising it.
It's a beautifully crafted film and unlike many movies looking at the acting art, avoids navel-gazing introspection and finds plenty of universal truths.
But above all, it's the portrait of a genuine giant and, as such, needed a colossal performance to pull it together.
Step forward little known theatrical actor Christian McKay – handed the chance of a lifetime he grasps it wholeheartedly.
McKay doesn't so much play Welles, he is Welles, striding around the screen with the same aura. Although he replicates Welles' voice and mannerisms perfectly, this isn't a karaoke performance. Welles is still a believable character, just one blessed with a ridiculous amount of talent.
So good is McKay that you barely notice that Efron has escaped his High School Musical shackles to show he's more than just a pretty face and that a supporting ensemble that also includes Ben Chaplin and Eden Lake's Kelly Reilly are all pitch perfect.
Expect a clutch of awards for one of the performances of the year.
SET in 1937, this gorgeous-looking, classy and witty movie features great period details and music.
It’s based on real-life events, when actor and director Orson Welles staged a modern-dress production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre in New York that was to set him on the path to legend.
He takes a shine to self-assured 17-year-old wannabe actor Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) and casts him as Lucius.
Richard delights in skipping school to hang out at the theatre, soaking up pearls of wisdom from Welles – who’s only in his early twenties but already incredibly talented – and his company, including George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and manager John Houseman (Eddie Marsan).
He’s particularly keen on spending time with beautiful and clever theatre assistant Sonja (Claire Danes). All the men want to date her, but amazingly she allows herself to be wooed by the confident teen.
She likes him, but can he win her heart when he can’t offer her the same opportunities as older men?
We get to see the great Welles at work, adding his own touches to radio recordings and chatting up women in his smooth style.
Director Richard Linklater has produced a mixed bag of films – he made the excellent School Of Rock and Before Sunrise, the obscure A Scanner Darkly and the frankly awful Bad News Bears.
Fortunately this one ranks towards the top end of his quality scale, thanks partly to a smart script but mainly to a bravura performance from Christian McKay, who makes his film debut as Welles. This 36-year-old from Lancashire had very little screen experience before he was cast but he IS the man who went on to be Citizen Kane.
He says: “I never imagined they could cast an unknown Englishman as a great American icon.”
He lost more than two stone to play him but gained just the right arrogant swagger.
Efron is not the “God-created actor” Welles calls Richard, but he’s pretty good and proves he can do more than sappy High School Musical-type roles.
This is a charming film featuring hidden depths which deserves to be seen.
HIGH School Musical star Zac Efron attempts to step away from teen-friendly fare with this gentle period piece.
To a large degree he succeeds, testing his acting mettle as part of an impressive ensemble cast in a drama inspired by Orson Welles’s notorious 1937 Broadway staging of Julius Caesar.
However, you can’t take the boy away from the musical completely, because Richard Linklater’s film culminates in the pin-up singing sweetly to a hushed theatre audience, while plucking a ukulele that doubles as a lute.
For all of the attention focused on Efron, Me & Orson Welles is ultimately a showcase for Lancashire-born Christian McKay as the bullying, egocentric legend.
It’s an eye-catching portrayal that puts his co-stars in the shade.
The film unfolds through the eyes of fresh-faced high-school student Richard Samuels (Efron), who blags the role of Lucius, replacing a kid who had a ‘personality’ problem with Orson.
The great man is cast as Brutus, and he dispatches Richard to learn his lines with beautiful production assistant Sonja (Clare Danes).
Meanwhile, the selfish star drives the rest of the company to the brink of mutiny, not least fellow thesp and co-star George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin).
While the production threatens to collapse around him, Richard pursues the seemingly unattainable Sonja.
Efron’s role doesn’t stretch him, but at least this film doesn’t contrive a happy ending
Chaplin is comic relief as a pessimistic, plummy Brit, and Kelly Reilly adds a touch of glamour as an insecure diva.
ORSON Welles died at the age of 70 in 1985 – after “probably” becoming more famous as a bloated beer commercials’ star.
But, hiring High School Musical’s Zac Efron will certainly help to teach today’s youngsters that he was actually one of Hollywood’s greats.
A thrusting young director to rival Spielberg and Scorsese, Welles also had the on-screen presence of Marlon Brando.
Showing at Cineworld Broad St and Showcase Dudley, it documents one of the early pivotal moments of his career when staging Julius Caesar in the Mercury Theatre would have prepared him for making movies like Citizen Kane (1941), still regarded as one of the best films ever made even though John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley won best picture at the 1942 Oscars.
Director Richard Linklater’s (Before Sunrise) toughest challenge and biggest surprise is that he’s actually found a believable Orson Welles.
His name is Christian McKay... and he’s a burly, engaging stage actor originally from Bury!
Now 36, he lost weight to play the visionary at the age of 22 and has a voice and frame which demands you to believe: “I am Orson!”
Considering he had never made a film before, and was even being taught how to act to a camera during the shoot, McKay’s performance is so extraordinary he deserves to follow Welles as one of only a handful of people to be given a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his first movie.
This is certainly the best debut by a Brit since Birmingham’s own Adrian Lester was unlucky not to win a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for Primary Colors (1998).
Linklater’s period touches are also superb, thanks to the Isle of Man’s surviving Gaiety Theatre which was built around the same time as the Mercury. Unbelievably, all of this 113-minute film was shot in Britain, not New York.
Though a veteran of films like The Hours and Terminator 3, actress Claire Danes is not a “face”. And so, as production assistant Sonja, she blends in beautifully with McKay’s version of Welles.
Efron plays the cocky young high-school student who has been cast as Lucius in place of another kid who inevitably had a personality clash with the precocious director.
“Me and Orson Welles” is a gem of a film, beautifully crafted in the old style of filmmaking. It has a beginning, middle and an end. Set in 1937, I am sure the producers were tempted to film in Black and White to give an even greater period feel, thankfully they resisted that temptation. It is a story of the week before the opening of 22-year-old Orson Welles production of “Julius Caesar” simply titled “Caesar” by Welles.
Zac Effron plays a college student who is passing Manhattans Mercury Theatre and Orson Welles hires after he shows his prowess on the drums and being able to play a ukulele.
To-days young audience may not be familiar with Orson Welles and will be attracted to this film by Zac Efron.
Orson Welles had great success in the theatre and as a radio actor and director. He gained instant fame with his infamous 1938 radio broadcast of H.G.Wells “War of the Worlds” which was done like a news broadcast and lead to many listens believing that earth was being invaded by Martians. Several people were said to have committed suicide on hearing the broadcast, this story has never been proved and may be down to Orson Welles himself, a great self-publicist.
He then went to Hollywood and made “Citizen Kane” regarded by many as the greatest film of all time, which was a flop when it was first released. That could be attributed to the fact that it was a thinly veiled account of the life of newspaper magnet William Randolph Hearst and all the newspapers he owned gave “Citizen Kane” a bad review.
Orsons problem was that he had done it all by the time he was twenty-six. He never repeated his early success and because of his deep theatrical tones ended up doing advertisements for wine and voice-overs, he was the first actor to say “Carlsberg, probably the best lager in the world”
Zac Efron has enjoyed early success mostly notably in “High School Musical” but this is definitely his breakthrough role and he has proved he can move on to more adult roles, he is excellent.
Without a doubt, though Zac Efron gets top billing, the film belongs to Christian McKay, who? I can hear you asking. Christian was born in Bury; yes he is English and had a successful career as a concert pianist before turning to acting. After RADA, were he was told he would not be a success until he was over 50. He has proved them wrong as he is in his late 30s. He has only had a couple of television roles and had played Welles in the Theatre Clywd production of “Rosebud” Which lead to him being offered the role of Welles in “Me and Orson Welles”. Director Richard Linklater resisted pressure to cast a Big Name as Orson Welles and he has been proved right.
Christian McKay is Orson Welles and has already been nominated for several awards, mostly Best Newcomer, but I would not be surprised if he is nominated for Best Actor at the next Oscars, he is that good. He is now a hot property appearing in Woody Allens next project and playing an MI6 agent in “Mr Nice”
“Me and Orson Welles” was mostly filmed in the Isle of Man, which substitutes nicely for the Isle of Manhattan, were the Gaiety Theatre and the Villa Marina have been used to great effect. Cannot have been bad for the Islands economy either. I just wonder if there are plans to stage Orson Welles production of “Caesar’ at the Gaiety which I am sure would be good for tourism. A production of “Rosebud” would also go down well, but I doubt if Christian McKay will be available to play the lead for quite some time.
I really enjoyed this film. It works on so many levels, film buffs will enjoy the odd references to other films, again as you know I hate giving away the plot of films, I feel it spoils your enjoyment, but watch James Tupper as Joseph Cotton, who went on to make “The Third Man” with Welles. There is no foul language and any sex is only alluded to. The soundtrack is lush, which is what you would expect from Gershwin and Porter with incidental music by Jools Holland.
The entire production is a delight and I do recommend it, one of the best cinema visits I have made in a long time.
Never mind Orson, this film is well awesome.
Zac Efron… urm, yeah - mindless Disney clone that sings, dances, smiles, lacks sexuality and generally makes anyone over the age of eighteen want to be a little bit sick in their mouths?
Well, times may be a changing if Me and Orson Welles is anything to go by; a film about a young wannabe actor who manages to wangle an unpaid part in Julius Caesar at Welles’ newly opened Mercury Theatre. It’s surprisingly good and makes you forget that Efron wasn’t your cup of tea previously.
The great Orson Welles had a career that spanned decades, not only as a radio, film and theatre actor but as a director, producer and writer. Me and Orson Welles focuses on a young Orson Welles in 1937 and is set backstage at The Mercury Theatre. Welles, notoriously arrogant, pedantic and difficult, was always that way it appears, even at twenty-two. In this feature we get to see him hire and fire on the spot, make constant demands of his cast and crew, womanise and be generally brilliant. Christian McKay nails the part of Welles; the voice, charisma, mannerisms and facial expressions are played to perfection. Through McKay, you can understand why people, even when Welles was being unbearable, were loyal to him and you can also see the genius in his ability to bring a play to life, improvise and avoid confrontations which could have damaged his blossoming career.
Me and Orson Welles is not heavy on ‘big stars’, it’s biggest probably being Mr. Efron and Claire Danes, although it is full of talent: Eddie Marsan is great as the put-upon producer, Ben Chaplin is the angst ridden player and Leo Bill the clown of the gang. Efron’s character, Richard, is naïve, yet keen, and ends up getting more than he bargained for not only with a part as Lucius but romantically with the ambitious assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes). Another thing that makes this a watchable film is that it has been directed so that you feel like you are there and you can feel the excitement, anticipation and stresses that go with putting a production together.
Me and Orson Welles isn’t just about Orson Welles, ‘though Christian McKay does steal the show, it’s also a character driven look into the life of Broadway theatre that provides some mild scenes of romance and comedy. So, although it’s only natural, don’t be scared off by Efron – he’s not half bad and isn’t the only thing the film has to offer.
The only problem is the me.
Loosey-goosey director Richard Linklater has gone behind the scenes for the founding of the Mercury Theatre, and all he came back with was an insipid love story starring Zac Efron.
To explain, Me and Orson Welles charts the historic, meteoric (insert as many superlatives as you wish right here) dawn of one particular genius, played uncannily, and with great boozy brio by Christian McKay. But then it bogs down in a fake love-story that reads like 1930s fan-fiction, starring that weird androgynous kid from High School Musical.
It’s 1937, and Welles and company are on the brink of a reckless masterpiece mounting their ramshackle, unconventional production of Julius Ceasar. Finances be damned, McKay brays and bellows, arriving late and stomping the boards in time-honored Orson-fashion, while the scarily convincing James Tupper plays Joseph Cotten as a fiendishly single-minded ladies man.
So while all of this history is in the making, why not just focus on a boring fictional outer- bourough kid with no discernable charisma (that would be Efron) scamming his way into a bit role and trying to win the heart of Welles’ prim and proper secretary (Claire Danes—Um, what were we saying about no discernable charisma?).
Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, Me and Orson Welles is more than a little embarrassing, as if a Welles scholar tried to write his way into a legend. Luckily for us, Slacker director Linkater has never had much of an attention span, allowing his camera to drift back and forth around all sorts of more interesting characters at the rehearsals, and eventually devoting a massive chunk of screen time to such a spot on recreation of the Ceasar performance itself, a colleague wondered if Shakespeare should share screen credit.
McKay is simply fantastic, channeling Welles’ gargantuan ego, his air of piggish entitlement and undeniable genius—all delivered in that soothing, sonorous voice. The supporting cast is so right, and the period details are spot on for such a small budget. Just imagine what these people all might have accomplished, were it not all the service of love story between Zac Efron and Claire Danes.
San Francisco Bay Guardian
It's 1937, and New York City, like the rest of the nation, presumably remains in the grip of the Great Depression. That trifling historical detail, however, is upstaged in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles (adapted from the novel by Robert Kaplow) by the doings at the newly founded Mercury Theatre. There, in the equally tight grip of actor, director, and company cofounder Orson Welles — who makes more pointed use of the historical present, of Italian fascism — a groundbreaking production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar hovers on the brink of premiere and possible disaster.
To a layperson, that might not seem like the best time to sub in a player, but luckily for swaggering young aspirant Richard (High School Musical series star Zac Efron), Welles (Christian McKay), already infamously tyrannical at 22, is not a man to shrink from firing an actor a week before opening night and replacing him with a 17-year-old kid from New Jersey. Particularly one who (says he) can play the ukulele. Finding himself working in perilous proximity to the master, his unharnessed ego, and his winsome, dishearteningly pragmatic assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), our callow hero is destined, predictably, to be handed some valuable life experience.
McKay makes a credible, enjoyable Welles, presented as the kind of engaging sociopath who handles people like props and hails ambulances like taxicabs. Efron projects a shallow interior life, an instinct for survival, and the charm of someone who has had charming lines written for him. While Richard's seemingly limitless bravura is amusing, the resultant adventures and mishaps don't seem to elicit much reaction within; what we witness is mild and momentary and bland. Still, he and Welles and the rest are all in service to the play, and so is the film, which offers an absorbing account of the company's final days of rehearsal, including the hair-pulling frustrations that the cast, the crew, and Mercury cofounder John Houseman (Eddie Marsan, from 2008's Happy-Go-Lucky) undergo for the sake of working in close quarters with genius.
Absent are the naturalistic talking jags with which Linklater made his name; here it's largely banter and smooth talk and gossipy stage whispers. But just as the teenagers of Dazed and Confused cruised through a sludgy stoner soup of '70s rock, the players of Me and Orson Welles flirt and prank and strut the streets of Manhattan with the atmospheric backing of Gershwin crooners and snappy big band numbers. The one jarring moment, both sonically and in the film at large, is the sound of Efron singing mid-production, earnest and plaintive and incapable of banishing that poppy HSM tremble from his delivery.
You never really know why high school senior Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) wants so badly to be in the theater. Me and Orson Welles offers no scenes of him struggling mightily to get there, or being harassed by his parents to take something, anything, seriously so that he might be able to have a career some day. He just knows that his unnamed and mostly unseen hometown, just a quick train ride from the beaming spotlight of Manhattan, has nothing for him. But once we see Richard enmeshed in an all-consuming and all-too-brief adventure, there’s also no reason to ask why he desires it so powerfully. Anybody who would need such a question answered in detail, likely wouldn’t understand the answer anyway.
Adapted with middling fidelity from Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles is a fresh breeze of a film that does its best to avoid such mundane complications as these. Set in a 1937 New York that’s all bustling sidewalks, verdant parks, and Gershwin tunes (on those few occasions when it steps outside the darkened theater), the film starts with fresh-faced Richard riding the train into Manhattan and stumbling across the Mercury Theater troupe as they’re arguing over their upcoming production of Julius Caesar, directed by and starring Orson Welles (Christian McKay). A few minutes later, after having impressed Welles with his sketchy vaudeville talents (he can handle a drum-roll and carry a tune), Richard is cast as Lucius, a small part that requires him to strum a lute (actually a modified ukulele) and sing to Welles’ Brutus.
Normally this is the kind of setup that would set your eyes rolling, but the explosively chaotic hugger-mugger that was the Mercury Theater meant that everything is in flux until the absolute last minute—a perfect situation for a kid who happens to be in the right place at the right time. As Richard, Efron presents a well-calibrated blend of confidence and naïveté that allows him to slip past the gatekeepers at this rogue operation while also avoiding (for the most part) the thunderous bolts of displeasure that the bombastic Welles hurls about him.
Though his hair is a touch too floppy for the times, and his singing voice also doesn’t quite ring true to the era’s style, Efron brings a canny quality that’s a shade or two darker than his earlier teenybopper roles, a bright kid figuring out how to be on the make and learning from the best. He gets schooled in the art of picking up actresses by a louche Joseph Cotton (the excellent James Tupper) and starts romancing the company’s office girl, a pert operator named Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). She appreciates Richard’s energy, and seems like him after a few years in the business: attractive, talented, slightly wiser, and still hustling hard for that big break.
But ultimately everybody on screen serves to support the story’s raison d’être: Welles. Although at this time Welles was only 23 years old, as embodied by the brilliant British actor McKay, he could well be two decades the senior of Richard and Sophie, given the mountain of self-assurance he hauls around with him. Dashing into the theater in between his frequent radio gigs, Welles is the manic genius on full display. Building up and tearing his play down, often in the same moment, and then running off again before any real work gets done, he’s the frantic artist whose inconsistencies must be suffered by a terrorized cast and his eternally flabbergasted manager and collaborator, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan).
McKay’s embodiment of Welles is fiercely theatrical and oversized, as it should be. He can’t quite nail Welles’ roiling bass of a voice, that sublime instrument which kept him fitfully employed for decades, even after burning more bridges in the industry than many knew even existed. But in almost every other instance, from his wickedly boyish half-smile to quick flashes of temper, he’s the multi-talented maestro.
Me and Orson Welles is a broadly drawn and artificial, except where it counts. Viewers won’t see any more of the actual New York of the late-1930s on screen here than they would in a Broadway musical from the same period. (It was mostly created on soundstages in England, a pretense that a faker like Welles would have approved.) And Richard’s dramatic arc bears fairly little resemblance to what actually happened to Arthur Anderson, the real-life inspiration for Kaplow’s novel (for starters, Anderson was 15 when he got the role as Lucius, and knew Welles from before). But where it matters, this is a film that hits the right buttons.
For one, what we see of Julius Caesar is a thing of savage beauty. From the stunningly swift and violent staging of the mob lynching of Cinna the poet (Leo Bill, bringing a nervy shock to the part) to the production’s stark black colors and avant-garde lighting, the staging leaves no question as to why this would have struck a chord with audiences all too aware of the fascist threat building across the Atlantic. (Welles would strike the same chord the following year with his infamously panic-sparking War of the Worlds broadcast.) For all the romantic drama that swirls around the play, three-quarters of a decade on, what Linklater reconstructs of the production process here still has sting.
Seven out of Ten
Teen-star Zac Efron, best known for the High School Musical movies, is ill-served both by screenplay and director in this fictional account of a young actor's brief encounter with theatrical genius Orson Welles (Christian McKay). Efron is Richard, a wannabe actor who lucks into a small role in Welles's famous 1937 production of Julius Caesar, and in the process falls for ambitious company member Sonja (Claire Danes) who also happens to be involved with Welles. Linklater, the indie director of Dazed and Confused, who hit the big time with The School of Rock, never seems to get to grips with his actors and leaves Efron, who is capable of being a perfectly acceptable screen presence, high and dry. The highlight is McKay, who conjures the bluster and charisma of Welles, as well as bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to the boy-genius. But the screenplay reveals little about his mercurial character, and the youthful romance is blandly unconvincing.
Two out of five stars
San Diego Reader
Me and Orson Welles fictionalizes, mythologizes, the Mercury Theatre’s mounting of a modern-dress Julius Caesar in 1937, the titular “me” being a stagestruck high-schooler who in one week lands a small speaking and singing part in the Broadway production, falls head over heels for the company secretary, sees her stolen out from under him by the titular Orson, gets fired and rehired and refired, falls back on a nicer girl for a happy ending, and at least has something to tell his grandchildren. As a coming-of-age tale, it isn’t much, but as an exhibition of old-fashioned studio filmmaking, luxurious sets and costumes lusciously photographed, it is more than adequate. It in any event is more than we could have expected from Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunrise, School of Rock, etc.), whose only other period piece is the negligible Newton Boys, and who did not stand strict guard against all anachronisms: a sexist attitude in the 1930s would not have been called “demeaning,” nor of course would it have been called sexist.
In eye and in mouth, in glance and in cadence, the unknown British actor Christian McKay magically conjures the Welles we know, although given his age it would be the Welles of, say, The Third Man or Othello. (Other Mercury players we know, Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris, Norman Lloyd, are not rendered with such fidelity, or indeed any fidelity, outside of perhaps the choppy waves on Cotten’s head.) It ought to give us serious pause when we calculate to ourselves that the actor who fills the role of the teenager, Zac Efron, is in real life the same age as Welles would have been in 1937, and in that pause we can reflect that we are getting the Welles of myth and legend instead of the Welles of a particular time and place: allusions to The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight knowingly open the gateway to the near and distant future. With Citizen Kane only four years away, the ham in him (he’s always “on,” never “off”) seems already reasonable to affirm, and the proportions of genius to pretender would be subject to dispute at every phase of his career, but the bully, the tyrant, is nowhere tempered by any sense of callow bluff or self-doubt. He comes across, if through age alone, as a hardened bully and tyrant. The performance, from start to finish, remains more impression than characterization.