Remember that Orson Welles himself didn't always look like Orson Welles. He was a master of makeup and disguise, and even when appearing in the first person, liked to use a little putty to build up a nose he considered a tad too snubbed. The impersonation of Welles by Christian McKay in "Me and Orson Welles" is the centerpiece of the film, and from it, all else flows. We can almost accept that this is the Great Man.
Twenty-four years after his death at 70, Welles is more than ever a Great Man. There is something about his manner, his voice and the way he carries himself that evokes greatness, even if it is only his own conviction of it. He is widely thought of as having made one masterpiece, "Citizen Kane" (1941) and several other considerable films, but flaming out into uncompleted projects and failed promise. Yet today even such a film as "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942), with its ending destroyed by the studio, often makes lists of the greatest of all time.
Oh, he had an ego. He once came to appear at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre. A snowstorm shut down the city, but he was able to get to the theater from his nearby hotel. At curtain time, he stepped before the handful of people who had been able to attend. "Good evening," he said. "I am Orson Welles -- director, producer; actor; impresario; writer; artist; magician; star of stage, screen and radio, and a pretty fair singer. Why are there so many of me, and so few of you?"
Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" is one of the best movies about the theater I've ever seen, and one of the few to relish the resentment so many of Welles' collaborators felt for the Great Man. He was such a multitasker that while staging his famous Mercury Theatre productions on Broadway, he also starred in several radio programs, carried on an active social life and sometimes napped by commuting between jobs in a hired ambulance. Much of the day for a Welles cast member was occupied in simply waiting for him to turn up at the theater.
Most viewers of this film will not necessarily know a lot about Welles' biography. There's no need to. Everything is here in context. The film involves the Mercury's first production, a "Julius Caesar" set in Mussolini's Italy. It sees this enterprise through the eyes of Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a young actor who is hired as a mascot by Welles, and somehow rises to a speaking role. He is star-struck and yet self-possessed and emboldened by a sudden romance that overtakes him with a Mercury cohort, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes).
The film is steeped in theater lore. The impossible hours, the rehearsals, the gossip, the intrigue, the hazards of stage trap doors, the quirks of personalities, the egos, the imbalance of a star surrounded entirely by supporting actors -- supporting on stage and in life.
Many of the familiar originals are represented here, not least Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), who co-starred with Welles in "Citizen Kane" and "The Third Man." Here is John Houseman (Eddie Marsan, not bulky enough but evocative), who was Welles' long-suffering producer. And the actor George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), who played Mr. Thatcher in "Kane." All at the beginning, all in embryo, all promised by Welles they would make history. They believed him, and they did.
McKay summons above all the unflappable self-confidence of Welles, a con man in addition to his many other gifts, who was later able to talk actors into appearing in films that were shot over a period of years, as funds became available from his jobs in other films, on TV, on the stage and in countless commercials ("We will sell no wine before its time"). Self-confidence is something you can't act; you have to possess it, and McKay, in his first leading role, has that in abundance.
He also suggests the charisma that swept people up. People were able to feel that even in his absence; I recall having lunch several times at the original Ma Maison in Beverly Hills, where no matter who I was interviewing (once it was Michael Caine), the conversation invariably came around to a mysterious shadowy figure dining in the shade -- Welles, who ate lunch there every single day.
Efron and Danes make an attractive couple, both young and bold, unswayed by Welles' greatness but knowingly allowing themselves to be used by it. Link-later's feel for onstage and backstage is tangible, and so is his identification with Welles. He was 30 when he made his first film, Welles of course 25, both swept along by unflappable fortitude. "Me and Orson Welles" is not only entertaining but an invaluable companion to the life and career of the Great Man.
Ain't It Cool News
Massawyrm (C. Robert Cargill)
If there’s any film that best represents the current state of chaos in the industry right now it is ME AND ORSON WELLES. A festival favorite for the last year, this has long been considered a sure thing pick-up that just never found a studio to actually pick it up. People love it, it’s got a big up-and-coming star in a film that will have wide appeal as well as prove to be critic friendly. But everyone mysteriously passed on it, a sad sign of the state of indie acquisitions, leaving the film to self-distribute. Which is something of a small tragedy considering how good a film it really is.
ME AND ORSON WELLES is the latest offering from local Austin workhorse Richard Linklater and his first major work since his brilliant A SCANNER DARKLY. I’m exactly 50/50 on Linklater’s films, loving a full half of them and strongly disliking the others. And oddly enough it isn’t along indie/mainstream lines. I’m equally mixed on both his personal stuff and his studio work. This is one of his rare films in which he managed to make a film with mainstream appeal as one of his personal indies – and it really is quite good.
The film stars Zac Efron as the “ME” in the title, a fictional character named Richard Samuels who at the tender age of 17 gets a small role in the Mercury Theater production of CAESER, Orson Welles infamous/immortal 100 minute modern dress version of Shakespeare’s classic JULIUS CAESER. But make no mistake, while the film centers around the coming of age antics of Efron’s Samuels, he is not the center of the film. He is an intriguing tool through which Linklater gets to tell a story about Orson Welles.
ME AND ORSON WELLES is, at its heart, a film giving us an honest outside-looking-in view of Welles without having to deal with the issues of making him the main character. Rather than having to adhere to the general Biopic formula, we get to see Welles in his environment, both at his most likable and most detestable, in an unvarnished look at his genius and megalomania. Being able to see him through the likable eyes of a kid he gives his big break to, while also seeing him dick our protagonist around a bit, allows us to have someone likable to cling to without them having to soften Orson in the slightest.
Efron is fantastic here and is doing a great job slowly breaking away from his HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL roots. Every outing he’s had since his Disney days has allowed him to prove himself more and more and he appears to be only a dark role or two away from finally departing from his pretty boy image the same way Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp broke away from theirs. While I’m not entirely convinced that he’s playing on their level, I see a very similar glimmer in him that we saw from Depp in his 21 JUMPSTREET days and Pitt in his pre-12 MONKEYS, COOL WORLD/THE FAVOR/LEGENDS OF THE FALL era. He’s incredibly likable and nails the emotional peaks that Samuels endures at the hands of a raving egomaniac like Welles.
And of course the big story is Christian McKay, the relative newcomer who knocks his performance of Welles right out of the park. Welles is tricky. In this day and age his voice is best known as the basis for the inspiration of The Brain in PINKY & THE BRAIN and has long since joined the ranks of the likes of Cagney, Wayne, Nixon and Presley in the realm of accepted impressions that don’t actually sound like their subject. But McKay nails it and transcends simple imitation finding his way into the realm of immersion. His Welles is fascinating, a marvelous, charismatic, arrogant son of a bitch who you can’t take your eyes off of. Watching McKay do Welles doing Brutus is a special treat all its own that makes for a late movie snack capping off his performance perfectly.
Linklater constructs a wonderful tale here, bringing to bear all the things he does best. It is a sweet, coming of age period piece that tangles with the messiness of relationships while juggling a bevy of likable small characters each given just enough time to be interesting. While not compelling enough material to be among his very best films, this rests very easily in the higher end of his filmography. A solid, highly enjoyable film, it is one of those rare indies that I’m going to beseech you to seek out and see at the theater. Self-distributing this thing can’t be easy, and of all the things opening against it this holiday weekend, this is (along with THE ROAD) one of the best. It is certainly the more accessible of the two.
A delightful venture, ME AND ORSON WELLES is tailor made for film history buffs, theater fans or anyone who enjoys period dramas. Light, fun and a real treat, this opens in limited release this Thanksgiving.
A real charmer, "Me and Orson Welles" is the work of a director who takes nostalgia, romantic possibility and the theater seriously, without being a pill about it.
Richard Linklater's film version of the Robert Kaplow novel tells a fairy tale based in fact. Strolling the Manhattan theater district one day in 1937, the story's fictional protagonist, a New Jersey high school student played by Zac Efron, stumbles into Orson Welles, John Houseman and their Mercury Theatre associates. In an eye-blink, young Richard is hired to play the lute-strumming role of Lucius in Welles' modern-dress revival of "Julius Caesar," opening in a mere week. These were history-making times for Welles. Already in 1937 the impresario's involvement with the incendiary musical "The Cradle Will Rock" (Tim Robbins made a rather hectoring film about it) burnished the Wellesian reputation for nerve and publicity. Welles' "Julius Caesar," drawing eerie parallels with Mussolini's regime, featured actors Welles would use later in Hollywood, ranging from panicky Brit George Coulouris (played in Linklater's film by Ben Chaplin) to elegant Virginia horn-dog Joseph Cotten (James Tupper). "Me and Orson Welles" has Richard falling for the Mercury's jill-of-all-trades, Sonja, played by Claire Danes. Her character is neither a simple ingenue nor a vamp. Danes, reliably excellent, creates a woman of ambition as well as heart.
The film's press so far has focused on Christian McKay's portrayal of Welles, and it is indeed something to see. Even more so, to hear: McKay (who is British, and a fair bit older than was 22-year-old Welles in 1937) gives us a boy-man who, practically since birth, has been told he is a genius with a fantastically expressive voice, and who uses that voice for theatrical effect even when he's nowhere near a stage. The script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo stays true to novelist Kaplow's source material, setting Welles up as the maelstrom who wises up a teenager and then whirls onward.
Much of the film was shot on the Isle of Man, with bits of London filling in for Depression-era Manhattan. Not since Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan portrait "Topsy-Turvy" (1999), detailing the birth of "The Mikado," has a film devoted so much screen time to the ins and outs of theatrical endeavor so rewardingly. (Cinematographer Dick Pope, a master at evocative interior lighting, worked on both pictures.) This theatrical bent may be surprising given director Linklater's resume; then again, the resume in question is one of the most unpredictable in contemporary American cinema, zigzagging from the hazy Texas ambience of "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused" to the quiet, piquant marvels "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" to "The School of Rock" and "Fast Food Nation."
Working on a modest budget Linklater manages some lovely visual flourishes, my favorite being a tracking shot that scurries, puppylike, after Welles as he rushes from theatrical rehearsal to a radio gig at CBS. This isn't a bravura, strolling-into-the-Copa-in-"GoodFellas" example of the single take. Rather, it's unostentatiously interesting -- controlled chaos, crystallizing the chaos as lived, and generated, by Welles.
Three and a half stars
"Me and Orson Welles" is a little velvet sack of diamonds. It's a sparkling love letter to a gigantic talent, a romance, a comedy, a drama. Above all it's a tale of puberty, the period between childhood and adulthood for both of its title characters, and for America. The story is retro but the subject matter is familiar to indie director Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "School of Rock" and "Before Sunset").
The film is set in 1937, as Welles, the boy wonder of radio plays and theater, prepares to stage "Julius Caesar." Zac Efron, a 17-year-old actor bored to extinction with his high school drama class, plays hooky in Manhattan, meets the showman on the street and lands a bit part.
On the radio there's news of war brewing in Europe, and Welles intends to make "Caesar" a revolutionary modern-dress commentary on fascism. The troupe's producer frets about deadlines and funding, the cast and orchestra are frustrated by Welles' constant revisions. But as opening night approaches, the crises energize everyone. With Welles as the whip-cracking ringmaster they work together in euphoric harmony.
The strongest source of tension is offstage, where the actors, actresses and office staff are performing a bedroom farce of their own. Claire Danes plays a secretary for the company whose intelligence, loyalty and cool elegance make her the perfect employee for the chaotic Mercury Theater. Efron courts her with the helplessness of a young man who believes he is in love but knows nothing of the practical side of courtships. Welles, a world-class philanderer, can go from an introduction to a smoothly executed pickup in under a minute. He's a man in a hurry, after all, traveling across Manhattan in an ambulance to beat the traffic.
Linklater directs with a wonderful lightness of touch. He doesn't labor over introducing the big cast of characters. We learn their identities and their place in the hierarchy as we go along. Cameraman Bill Pope shoots clear, strong images free from any hokey patina of age. The script is literate and restrained, a neatly arranged composition of wry humor and melancholy.
Efron takes a step here from pinup status to actor, but the real story is Christian McKay, a British stage actor who has played Welles for years in one-man shows. His film debut is a triumph. At 36, he's a bit old; Welles was a wunderkind of 22 when he set New York on its ear with "Caesar." Nevertheless, McKay strongly resembles the young Welles and brilliantly captures the measure of the man. He sees everyone as an audience, to be seduced or taken by force. When he focuses on someone it's as if the rotating lamp of a lighthouse has paused to shine on that person alone. McKay understands the rebellious, wounded orphan behind the emotionally isolated genius; Welles' two great films, "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" are about celebrated men trying to recapture the hope, safety and security of their childhoods. From the cadences of that hypnotic voice to the lightning bolts of inspiration to the frequent look of a schoolboy pulling a naughty prank, McKay nails his performance to the back wall of the theater.
It helps to know something about history and Welles's career to get the most from this film. When "Caesar" slays 'em, McKay crows, "How will I top this?" With the "War of the Worlds" broadcast and "Kane" just over the horizon, it's a great inside joke for culture vultures. And when Efron walks off into what looks like a happy ending, it helps to remember how soon that faraway war on the radio would hit home.
Three and a half stars out of four
Filled with jaunty '30s music and fast-talking dialogue, Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" is an enjoyable if light wallow in scrubbed-clean nostalgia; it's like a Woody Allen period film (you keep thinking "Bullets over Broadway" is taking place around the corner) with a real-life twist. The film is based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, which in turn is based on an irresistible true story: Kaplow found a photo in a university archive from Welles' 1937 Mercury Theatre production of "Julius Caesar," showing the actor/director onstage in full Wellesian emoting — and a young actor next to him, playing the ukulele.
"Me and Orson Welles" is told from the (mostly imagined) point of view of that young man, a high-school kid and would-be actor here named Richard Samuels and played with charming, loose-limbed breeziness by Zac Efron. A chance discussion on a Manhattan sidewalk leads to him being cast in "Julius Caesar," and the kid quickly gets an education: in the theea-tah, in artistic temperament and in women.
The British actor Christian McKay plays Welles marvelously as the larger-than-life scenery-chewer of legend; a man who turns when making a joke to make sure that everybody in the room heard it. He's always performing, and always controlling. "Everything in this show is mine!" he sputters at one point, frustrated by the idea that anybody else might have a say. The cast, including young Richard, bathes in his praise and fears his rage.
Claire Danes, bringing her complicated Cheshire-cat smile, plays an ambitious theater employee who provides Richard with a crash course in love; Zoe Kazan, she of the bottomless blue eyes, is sweetly retro as a girl who's "trying to write a play" and turns out to be a much better match for him. Linklater keeps everything bouncing along, in sepia light and roar-of-the-greasepaint dust, giving us a little lesson in theater history (his depiction of Welles' then daringly modern "Julius Caesar" is carefully researched, based on photographs and descriptions of the original) along with an appealing coming-of-age tale. "They Can't Take That Away From Me" plays on the soundtrack at the end: just the right note, for a young man who's just had the experience of a lifetime.
Three out of four stars
The title notwithstanding, this gently charming comedy has nothing to do with any romance between the late actor-director-genius and anyone other than himself. As portrayed by Christian McKay -- who has the wunderkind's arrogant bearing, sonorous voice and giant ego down cold -- Welles is too self-absorbed to care about anything other than his art. And that includes his very pregnant wife (Emily Allen), whom he neglects in favor of any woman in the cast who'll have him. McKay's Welles is a man of outsize appetites -- sexual, gustatory and artistic -- and the actor's performance is hugely satisfying.
Set over the course of a single week in November 1937, "Me and Orson Welles," by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard Linklater ("Before Sunset"), is based on Robert Kaplow's historical novel of the same name about Welles's Mercury Theatre and its acclaimed, modern-dress production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Told through the eyes of 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), an aspiring actor who stumbles into a bit part in the play, the movie does involve a traditional boy-meets-girl subplot: No sooner has Richard arrived than he's making goo-goo eyes with Sonja (Claire Danes), an older, worldly wise production assistant. And she's making them right back.
It doesn't ruin things to know that first Richard gets lucky then gets his heart broken. Richard and Sonja's destiny turns this into a somewhat predictable coming-of-age story. But that's not the real love story I'm talking about either.
Rather, "Me and Orson Welles" is a movie in love with live theater. And not just with the finished product either, though Linklater lavishes much screen time near the end of the film showing how and why Welles's adaptation would have wowed audiences at the time. "Orson Welles" is head over heels, sometimes even giddily, in love with the magic, the risk and the drama (both on stage and off) that go into putting on a show.
It's "Glee" for the literary set.
When Richard is cast, for instance -- based on little other than his ability to sing -- the play is still in a shambles. Its director, Welles, is habitually late for rehearsal. Music cues are being changed every day. Roles are being cut and then restored right and left, and everybody is trying to get into everybody else's pants or having a nervous breakdown.
As anyone who has ever worked on a play knows, that's pretty typical. It's also pretty esoteric stuff. It's an open question as to who, outside theater geeks, will find this inside-baseball approach quite as fascinating as Linklater apparently does.
That said, there's much to recommend "Orson Welles" to the general population. Or at least the part of it that loved "Bullets Over Broadway." In addition to McKay, Danes makes a sassy, sexy Sonja. And Efron more than gets by in his role as the sweet, plucky, starstruck newbie. It's a part that doesn't require much heavy lifting, though.
In fact, I would have liked to see more interaction between Richard and Gretta Adler, an aspiring writer Richard meets in a sheet-music shop and who keeps popping up in the kind of New York City serendipity you see only in movies. Played by Zoe Kazan, the granddaughter of the great director Elia Kazan, Gretta is one of many small delights here.
As for getting that wreck of a play into shape with only one week to go before opening night? It may sound like another cliche, but as any theater geek will tell you: It's true. A lot can happen in seven days.
Globe and Mail
Before he created the grand radio stunt War of the Worlds, before he made Citizen Kane, the 1941 film still regarded by many as the pinnacle of motion-picture achievement, a 22-year-old Orson Welles was a theatre genius. He made his triumphant Broadway debut in 1937 with a bare bones, heavily edited, modern dress, “black shirt” production of Julius Caesar . The show, echoing the rise of totalitarian regimes in Italy and Germany, was a hit and Welles's Mercury Theatre was launched.
Me and Orson Welles blends fictional and historic characters in chronicling that theatre milestone from the perspective of a New York high-school senior, Richard (Zac Efron), who gets the role of Lucius, the lute-playing servant to Brutus, in the frantic week before the play's opening. The job promises neither money nor glory, simply a chance to be at the birth of a cultural event.
“You're not getting anything except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson's spit,” Welles's assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), warns him.
Me and Orson Welles (adapted by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from a youth novel by high-school English teacher Robert Kaplow) shouldn't be as entertaining as it is. Efron is too much a confident Disney heartthrob to suggest the nervous awe his character is supposed to feel. Also, it looks like a cable television production. Richard Linklater ( Before Sunrise , Dazed and Confused ) makes no attempt at evoking New York in the thirties (it was shot in London and the Isle of Man), and there's no attempt to simulate Welles's baroque film style.
Fortunately, Me and Orson Welles has a great thundering ace up its sleeve – the character of Orson Welles. He's reincarnated here by British stage actor Christian McKay, who played Welles in the off-Broadway one-man show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles . McKay has Welles's baritone down to a juicy rumble. His twinkle, his pomposity, his patronizing manner are captured to perfection. (If the 36-year-old McKay looks old for 22, so did Welles.) There are moments when you see McKay, jumping in and out of the role of Brutus (treated highly sympathetically) and ordering his cast about, when you feel as if you had stumbled onto some remarkable found documentary of Welles in action.
The other achievement is a smartly crafted story, a memorable coming-of-age tale as young Richard gets a crash course both in art and treachery. Welles is portrayed as a horror to work for, pompous, dishonest, irascible and petty. He juggles a pregnant wife and several mistresses, while running roughshod over his cast's feelings in the service of his changing vision.
Like Richard, Danes's Sonja is a fictional character, a stylish Vassar grad with career ambitions who serves as Richard's, and our, entrée into this backstage family. We meet the Welles ensemble: the much put-upon manager, John Houseman (who had a secondary career as an actor in the seventies' and eighties in the movie and television series The Paper Chase ); the skirt-chasing Joseph Cotten (James Tupper); and the neurotic, gifted George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), who plays Marc Antony.
The very name Orson Welles stands for genius wasted and betrayed, and the movie offers some foreshadowing of his triumphs and failures to come. Welles takes Richard along to a radio taping for a little lesson in acting and, on the way, shows him his marked-up copy of The Magnificent Ambersons (his other 1941 masterpiece), which he describes, in a vulnerable moment, as being “about how everything gets taken away from you.”
But the film is about Welles cresting toward his greatest triumphs. He breezes through the radio drama on fierce energy and panache, without bothering to learn the lines. Best of all, we see enough scenes of Welles's staging of Julius Caesar to suggest how the stark violence and minimalist presentation had such an immediate impact.
Me and Orson Welles is book-ended with another love story of Richard's fledgling romance with a young fiction writer (Zoe Kazan), which is endearing, if dispensable. Powerful art, as Welles demonstrated, is anything but endearing.
Three out of four stars
A thoroughly enjoyable film that wraps a coming-of-age story around the portrait of a genius, versatile director Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" features a downright brilliant performance.
In fact, previously unknown actor Christopher McKay is so mesmerizing in his performance as the young, brash, impetuous, selfish, childish and undeniably brilliant Orson Welles that he threatens to ruin the movie by flying above it. You never want to see him leave the screen, so you almost resent it when the plot wanders elsewhere. Yeah, you think, sure, love story, fine -- but can we get back to Welles?
Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a 17-year-old in 1937 New York with vague dreams of being a performer when he stumbles into a bit part in Welles' groundbreaking theatrical production of "Julius Caesar.
As we've learned from countless films, theater is a chaotic process, made far more chaotic than normal here by Welles' grand visions and gargantuan ego. Richard falls in love with an ambitious theater assistant (Claire Danes) ... but enough of that, let's talk about Welles.
McKay's performance is florid and exhilarating, so bold you feel you're watching the real Welles. And the screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo perfectly captures the fierce nature of the man. He manipulates, he chastises, yells and betrays, all in the name of art, but also in the name of Orson.
As Welles fades and Richard's love trials wind down, it's easy to wish the romance had been cut from the film. But it's needed for human balance -- Efron brings a young charm to balance Welles' voice-of-God confidence.
Built in is our knowledge that Welles' couldn't maintain the fire of his youth. But "Me and Orson Welles" at least offers some of that heat.
San Francisco Chronicle
When actors play real people, viewers usually have to make a mental adjustment. The actor is clearly not that actual person, but after a few minutes, it's possible to get onto the actor's wavelength and enter into the fantasy. But nothing like that process happens with regard to Christian McKay who, as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles, gives what I believe is the most exact and uncanny screen portrayal of a historical figure, ever.
McKay realizes Welles in all his modes — the booming, intimidating Welles. The tasting-his-words and twinkling-with-his-own-brilliance Welles. The grand and moving actor Welles. The playful, storytelling Welles. And, of course, the relaxed and genial Welles, who was almost completely relaxed and genial, but for a touch of, “Here I am being genial, and I am better at geniality than any man who has walked the Earth!”
Moreover, McKay is able to switch between Welles' various modes on a dime. In his first scene he meets the Me of the title — Richard (Zac Efron), a teenager who wants to work with Welles' Mercury Players. They stand outside the theater, and in between barking orders at subordinates and showing off, Welles sizes up the kid's character and auditions him. That scene alone is an astonishing tour de force, and McKay's performance never drops below that level. I forgot that I was looking at an actor. I really believed I was looking at Welles.
As for the film, it's a total charmer about the run-up to Welles' 1937 production of Julius Caesar, full of loving period detail. Richard Linklater directs the movie with his characteristic feeling for the nuances and particulars of human interaction and sensitivity toward youthful coming of age. It's a wonderful thing for Zac Efron, at this stage of his career, to find himself working with Linklater. One of Efron's earlier movies, 17 Again, had moments suggesting that this kid was more than a pretty face. In Me and Orson Welles, he gets to prove it.
Efron is the ambitious young man of 1930s lore, the Depression kid from New York's outer boroughs who, by some accident of nature, has deep artistic longings. Efron leaves us with no doubt that working with Welles represents for this young man the absolute pinnacle, but at the same time, he gives young Richard a tough streak that will serve him well if he hopes to survive in showbiz. Efron's good looks help, too, conveying a youthful purity and also explaining why the company's production assistant (Claire Danes) takes an instant interest in him. In '30s costume, Efron looks a lot like Tyrone Power.
Me and Orson Welles is the story of a young man's education into the ways of artists and the theater and men and women. The theater scenes are satisfying — the re-creation of Welles' stage production feel authentic — but so are the quiet, two-person scenes. The movie goes a lot deeper than nostalgia and offers more than McKay's performance, amazing though that may be.
Independent on Sunday
Linklater's film is much jollier. This Texan director can be lyrical and intimate (Before Sunrise) or downright crowd-pleasing (School of Rock), but Me and Orson Welles is his most personable and old-fashioned film yet. Written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, it's a cheerful coming-of-age story about a tyro actor who lands a walk-on part in Orson Welles's legendary 1937 stage production of Julius Caesar.
Shot by Dick Pope, and scored to bursts of Duke Ellington et al, the film has a warm, lived-in period feel close to Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, and a similar ain't-theatre-crazy vibe. But there's a hard-bitten realism behind the sweetness: Claire Danes's archetypal Nice Girl proves very go-getting indeed, while Welles, genius though he is, is also an overbearing manipula
tor, a shameless showboater, and a womaniser ruthlessly insisting on droit de seigneur. He's also somewhat lacking in self-awareness: "Have you ever heard anybody so in love with the sound of his own voice?" he fumes, meaning John Gielgud). There are other good Welles jokes: here it's Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) who steps out of the shadows like Harry Lime.
The film was shot in Pinewood and the Isle of Man, and assorted Brits shine in a knowingly stagey way: Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, Ben Chaplin as a grandly neurotic George Coulouris. Christian McKay as the Great Man is no dead ringer, yet as you study his face, elongated rather than podgy, it's fascinating how discrete parts of it keep clicking into Wellesian shapes – the knowing flirtatious moue, the quizzical brow. It's one of cinema's better studies of Genius as Prat.
I'm not entirely sure about the casting of High School Musical idol Zac Efron as the ingenu hero – blandly cocky, he's a little too knowing about his own clean charisma, but it's a bright, zesty performance. But I couldn't help wondering who he reminded me of, until his neatly arched eyebrows gave it away – he looks uncannily like a male Sasha Grey. In fact, some enterprising soul could cast them as brother and sister ? sorry, that's just too perverse.
The best thing about Linklater's film, however, is its patent love of theatre, and when we get to see the excerpts from the Mercury Theatre Caesar, with its great Constructivist shafts of light, it's a thrilling climax. When Welles himself marvels, "How the hell do I top that?" you do rather want to see what this promising talent got up to next.
Full of bluster, bluffery, and - yes - brilliance, the Orson Welles of Me and Orson Welles, played by the remarkable Christian McKay, is a charismatic megalomanic bent on turning his fledgling troupe, the Mercury, into the artistic force of New York theater. It is 1937, Citizen Kane is not yet a gleam in Welles' eye, but the man is clearly a genius.
At least, as far as he's concerned.
The "me" in Richard Linklater's terrifically fun, spirited reimagining of Welles' early creative days is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high schooler (of course) who loves the theater and who, by luck, pluck, and the lie that he can play banjo, lands a small role in the Mercury's production of Julius Caesar. Such is the premise of Robert Kaplow's novel: that a teenager tumbles into this historic moment, among this gang of legendary thespians (John Houseman, Joseph Cotten, Norman Lloyd), and experiences the head-spinning juggernaut first-hand - a hatchling's-eye-view.
A love letter to the world of theater - to its tyrants and tyros, to the set-builders, costumers, stars, and scribes - Linklater's film adaptation succeeds in bringing the flamboyant Welles to life, without resorting to caricature (although a few vintage Al Hirschfelds adorn the walls). This is due in no small part to McKay, an English actor who has portrayed Welles in a one-man show but whose affinity for his subject goes deeper, and broader, than mere mimicry. His is, in short, an exhilarating performance.
As the wet-behind-the-ears Richard accompanies Welles around town (he prefers ambulance over taxi, it's quicker), the boy sees the man at his best and worst: radically repurposing Shakespeare to serve as allegory for fascism's rise; cheating on his pregnant wife with his leading lady - and with the front office girl, too.
That would be Claire Danes, playing the sage, seductive Sonja Jones. And Welles isn't the only one with his eye on her. Me and Orson Welles is, on one level, a coming-of-age tale, and lucky Richard gets to come of age in the charming company of the self-possessed Miss Jones.
As for Efron, the High School Musical star acquits himself well in such stellar company. He, too, looks as if he's enjoying himself immensely.
Linklater's filmography runs from indie minimalism (Slacker, Before Sunrise) to experimental animation (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) to straightforward Hollywood entertainments (School of Rock, Bad News Bears). Me and Orson Welles is something else: unabashedly old-fashioned in mood and manner, it's a retro period piece that lives comfortably within its own theatrical confines. No one's going to mistake Linklater's 1930s New York for the real thing (in fact, the movie was shot on soundstages on the Isle of Man), but the place it evokes is one that's satisfyingly familiar in its art, and its artifice.
Three and a half stars out of four
"Me and Orson Welles" won't be remembered for its "me," but for its remarkable Orson Welles.
Zac Efron is the Me, playing a plucky New York kid named Richard Samuels who bluffs his way into a small role in Welles' legendary 1937 staging of "Julius Caesar" at the Mercury Theater in Manhattan.
British actor Christian McKay is Welles, and he's so stunningly good as Welles - he gets both his physical essence and his spirit - that all else fades to the background.
All else is a lot of filler about Samuels and his eventful coming-of-age. He has an improbable romance with Welles' secretary (Claire Danes), a notoriously hard-to-get blonde who's pursued by almost every actor in the Welles troupe, including Joseph Cotten (James Tupper).
The eager Samuels also becomes something of a mascot to Welles, who pulls Samuels aside for advice and allows him to tag along on spontaneous adventures.
This leads to a bravura sequence wherein Welles abruptly leaves "Caesar" rehearsals, tears across town in an ambulance (so he doesn't have to stop at lights), sirens wailing, to make an appearance on live radio.
Director Richard Linklater shoots the entire sequence in only a few takes, and McKay captures Welles manic genius - he's candid and confessional in the ambulance, then charming and flirtatious on his way to the show (he performed impromptu magic, and was a natural showman), then brilliantly improvisational during the program itself.
Which of these is the real Welles? Did he reveal himself to Samuels, or was it all just another rehearsal?
The movie shows Welles willing to adopt any persona - friend, foe, advocate, bully - in order to bring his troupe into the proper opening-night crescendo, wherein everyone's emotions are at their most transparent.
This is Linklater's contribution to the recent/coming spate of movies ("Broken Embraces" "Nine") about collaborative art, and when it works - when it's focused on the Welles/McKay dynamic and enigma - it's the best of the bunch.
Is Zac Efron the new Mickey Rooney?
In Richard Linklater’s pleasant “Me and Orson Welles,” Efron plays a high-school student who meets Welles (Christian McKay) just as he’s casting the Mercury Theater’s famous 1937 modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in New York City and gets cast in a role.
In the course of events, Efron’s starry-eyed, if also bland Richard Samuels meets fellow actors George Colouris (Ben Chaplin),Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), loses his virginity to the company’s ambitious production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), is disillusioned by what he learns of the Great Man and acts in a Broadway play.
The film, shot believe it or not on the Isle of Man, is a colorful and often enjoyable trip in the Wayback Machine for Welles’ fans, an interesting, if also cartoonish backstage portrait of a Broadway production, and with any luck some of
Efron’s hordes of admirers will show up to see him in anything.
Linklater, whose previous films were “Fast FoodNation,” “A Scanner Darkly” and the 2005 remake of “Bad News Bears,” is best known for his earlier films, “Slacker” (1991), “Dazed and Confused” (1993) and “Before Sunrise” (1995).
Those earlier efforts were generational anthems. More recently, he’s been all over the place, and “Me and Orson Welles,” which is based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, is another direction still. A period film featuring an impersonation of one of the most famous actor-directors in movie history, “Me and Orson Welles” has automatic pleasures for film buffs.
McKay previously embodied Welles in a biographical stage production, and he has the look and the sound of him down pat. But his brilliant Boy Wonder, who genuinely resembles Welles, is a bloated baby: conceited and self-obsessed, all bravado, ego, booming voice and insatiable appetite. Where’s the artist who will make “Citizen Kane” in a few years?
We get plenty of soap opera, art deco stage lighting and actors’ spraying their lines. Welles is sleeping with Muriel (Kelly Reilly) in spite of the unexpected visits of his pregnant wife Virginia (Emily Allen). Welles’ theater manager John Houseman (Eddie Marsan of “Happy-Go-Lucky”) keeps blowing a gasket over Welles’ endless delays. Richard has an age-appropriate admirer in feisty theater buff and fledgling writer Gretta Adler (Broadway sensation Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia). But he is blinded by his infatuation with the older woman Sonja.
While Efron and Kazan have a nice early scene involving Richard Rodgers’ song “There’s a SmallHotel,” his scenes with Danes are not very convincing. But Efron deserves credit for taking this on when he could be making back-to-back “High School Musicals” and getting into scrapes with the paparazzi.
Time Out Chicago
Long before he played Charles Foster Kane, Orson Welles blazed like a sun in the theater world, and like a sun, he exerted enormous gravity on those around him and often burned those who got too close. This enjoyable light entertainment captures Welles ascendant, preparing for his 1937 production of Julius Caesar. And like Welles himself, the actor playing him (McKay) makes it hard to notice there is anyone else around.
Efron plays Richard, a New York high-school kid enamored of the theater who cons his way into being cast as a last-minute replacement a week before opening (the sole requirement is that he can play the ukulele; he bluffs). And he gets a hard, fast education in theater and life. He woos the company’s resident unavailable hottie Sonja (Danes) and gets his heart broken when he learns that she’s not going to throw over her career ambitions for a callow lad with adorable eyes. Ah, life upon the wicked stage! Linklater delivers the story with clear-eyed efficiency, and the period details are lovingly precise, but the film feels a bit under-cooked.
Danes is perfectly satisfactory, and many of the actors in secondary roles are quite good, but Efron isn’t given much to work with beyond fresh-faced up-and-at-’em spirit, and he’s not a mature enough actor to find anything in the material. But McKay! He doesn’t just get the distinctive Welles cadence; he owns this film, striding through scenes as if he’s the lord of all he surveys. He is.
Three out of five stars
t's 1937 and young director Orson Welles (Christian McKay, excellent) is opening New York's Mercury Theater with a take on Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Aspiring actor Richard (Zac Efron) lands a part in the disorganized show—which is frequently delayed by Welles' tardiness and massive ego—but doesn't sweat it too much after hitting it off with a fetching production assistant (Claire Danes).
The buzz: Based around the actual adaptation by Welles (who, of course, went on to become a legendary filmmaker), "Me and Orson Welles" comes from the novel by Robert Kaplow. The film is a return to lighthearted fare for director Richard Linklater ("A Scanner Darkly") and a chance to see if Efron can keep up in a more mature film than "High School Musical," "17 Again" or "Hairspray."
The verdict: Efron comes off as too bland to provide his usual spark. This minor but pleasant comedy, though, captures behind-the-scenes mayhem as the result of having a brilliant windbag at the helm, causing both chaos and inspiration with all his hot air. The movie's as much about the relationship between director and cast as it is about the ever-present BS of the theater. Linklater's clever gag is realizing that in the moment just before or after a performance, hearing a little ego-boosting BS is perfectly welcome.
Did you know? To audition for Welles, Richard sings the jingle for Wheaties. Consider what modern ad—Empire Carpet?—you'd pick for your big break.
Three and a half stars out of five
Actors find it difficult to play actors, particularly when they're required to create on-camera a well-known great (or notoriously poor) performance.
So imagine the task before Christian McKay, who plays the great Orson Welles in Richard Linklater's film "Me and Orson Welles."
But McKay doesn't just play Welles. He plays Welles playing Brutus in Welles' legendary 1937 staging of "Julius Caesar" for his Mercury Theatre. And he is magnificent, the best thing about the film. Which is not to say it doesn't have other things to recommend it.
Zac Efron moves past his "High School Musical" persona with a nice performance as Richard Samuels, the "me" of the title. He's a high-school student again, but this time he longs to act, to sing, to perform - well, that is sort of like "High School Musical." But here it's for bigger stakes, which is what lands him outside the Mercury one day, hoping for a shot at a role in "Julius Caesar."
Claire Danes also is good as Sonja, a secretary of sorts with much greater ambitions. Eddie Marsan's John Houseman might in another film be the character we're drawn to, but, as in life, not with the great Welles striding the boards.
Linklater strikes a nice balance between an important moment in Welles' (and theater's) history and a let's-put-on-a-show entertainment. The story, based on Robert Kaplow's novel, ostensibly is Richard's, framed by his friendship with Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring young writer, two young artists hungry to get their lives and careers started.
But the movie really takes flight whenever McKay is on-screen. One imagines the same might be true of the Mercury whenever Welles entered it. He is mercurial, ambitious beyond reason, cutting, brutal - and, without question, brilliant.
The cast and crew are attuned to his moods, his lacerating critiques of their work, his enormous appetites. Welles sees what the play should be, what everyone's performance should be, and only bothers with niceties like tact when it serves to improve the production. It's certainly not smooth sailing for Richard, who dares cross Welles over a woman. Yet, like everyone else involved with the show, Richard is drawn to . . . what, exactly? Welles' force of personality, which is equal parts magnetic and repellent? The joy of creating art, which is without question what Welles is doing with "Julius Caesar"? Hard to say, because the two things are so intertwined in the production.
"Me and Orson Welles" may indeed be about Richard and his relationship to the theater and life, but the more satisfying relationship here is between Welles and his relationship to his gargantuan ambition, which would serve him well until ultimately betraying him.
Four out of five stars
A gummy opening introduces the “me” in this boy-meets-boy period comedy: He is Richard Samuels (Efron), a dreamy-eyed Jersey high schooler who quite literally stumbles into the part of his life, as a walk-on in the New York theatrical production of Julius Caesar, Orson Welles’ barn-burning 1937 debut production for his Mercury Theatre troupe. Richard meets the ragtag company on the street just outside the newly erected marquee; a cymbal wheels down the sidewalk – an impish image from director Linklater, who’s clearly having fun here – and then Orson Welles (McKay) enters stage left, with a mirroring crash boom siss.
Richard, light on his feet, talks his way into Welles’ production; Welles, only 22 and admiring of anyone with pluck (so long as said pluck doesn't steal from his own spotlight), takes a liking to the kid. Everybody does, really, from Welles’ harried Mercury co-founder, John Houseman (Marsan), and longtime friend and collaborator Joseph Cotten (Tupper, a little too bearish) on down to the sparky office assistant, Sonja (Danes), under whose tutelage Richard’s education becomes, er, a little more well-rounded.
That Welles and Richard will soon tussle over Sonja plays somewhat improbably, but no matter: By the time that particular plot point comes around, the script – by Austinites Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (based on the novel by Robert Kaplow) – is well past its pokey first pages, and Linklater’s film has already put us thoroughly in its pocket. In part – in large part, I should say – credit goes to McKay. He’s maybe more kind-eyed, more slack-jawed than the youthful Welles, but I’m not sure megalomania has ever been played so irresistibly on the screen. One imagines the British actor broke a sweat trying to break this character, but it doesn’t show: His performance seems effortless, so commanding is it, careening from cocksure boy genius to bellowing, beleaguered director to ice-in-his-veins slayer of baby dragons such as disposable actors and mewling rival suitors (the bigger dragons, Welles' fraught Hollywood career would later prove, would be more difficult).
Efron, a young actor best known for his breakout role in the High School Musical juggernaut, brings a lively physicality to the film, but it’s a tricky part: Richard may be trying to find himself, but the audience is simply trying to find a rough psychological sketch of the guy. Efron is not yet a sophisticated enough actor to distinguish unformed from merely vague but what he does convey, rather winningly, is a kind of puppyish enthusiasm that is infectious.
Just as Richard excitably reacts to the production in progress, so do we, and Linklater brings an almost tactile quality to the staging and shooting of the play (spittle in the back light, who knew you could be so pretty?). In his first narrative, nonanimated feature since 2006's ambitious but tractionless Fast Food Nation, Linklater has crafted an always genial and at times even joyful period charmer about that moment on the cusp: before a boy becomes a man and another man becomes a mythological figure.
Three and a half stars
Twin Cities Pioneer Press
"Me and Orson Welles" is a movie for people who love live theater.
Weirdly, it's the second movie to take a fictionalized backstage look at an Orson Welles theatrical production from the '30s, but "Me" is a significantly better movie than Tim Robbins' "The Cradle Will Rock."
A witty, romantic drama set during rehearsals of Welles' now-legendary 1937 production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," the dialogue and design of "Me" beautifully evoke the era. But it comes most thrillingly to life during the large segments devoted to backstage intrigue and painstaking re-creations of what appears to have been a revelatory and brutal interpretation of Shakespeare.
The main character in "Me," the "me," is a teen actor named Richard (Zac Efron), who stumbles into the Welles production and into a romantic triangle he's bound to lose because he's lusting after the woman (Claire Danes, sparkling) Welles is cheating on his wife with. Efron is both too old and too handsome to play an uncertain pup, but his canny performance suggests there may be life beyond "High School Musical" reunions for him.
Efron also manages to hold his own in his scenes with the astonishing Christian McKay, who plays Welles. Not only does McKay look almost exactly like the young chipmunk-cheeked Welles but his larger-than-larger-than-life performance also captures the infuriating contradictions of a genius who could be playful, autocratic, theatrical, manipulative, innocent and cruel all at the same time.
Part of the fun of watching "Me" is that it allows us to see Welles when he was nearing his youthful creative peak, before he annoyed Hollywood's decision makers and was consigned to decades of crummy work. On the opening night of "Caesar," as rapturous audiences leap to their feet, he muses aloud, "How the hell do I top this?"
Welles fans, of course, know exactly how he topped it: Within the next four years, he would shock the nation with the radio show "War of the Worlds" and bang out the best movie of all time, "Citizen Kane."
Seattle PI blog
As a movie buff, I've always been fascinated by the history of Hollywood personalities and few stand out from the pack like Orson Welles. As a wunderkind in 1941, Welles stormed into Hollywood and made Citizen Kane, a film many consider to be the greatest ever made. But before he invaded the movie business, Welles was a popular radio personality and had his own troupe of players at the Mercury Theater in New York. Director Richard Linklater's new film Me and Orson Welles, tells the story of Welles' famous 1937 stage production of Julius Caesar.
The "Me" of the title is Richard Samuels, a fictional--as far as I can tell--teenager who is bored with school and tends to spend his after-school hours wandering the New York City streets. A chance encounter with the Mercury Theater production company, Samuels suddenly finds himself cast in a small role in their upcoming production of Caesar.
During one hectic week of rehearsals, Samuels finds himself receiving harsh lessons about the entertainment industry and life itself. He also finds himself in the company of a beautiful and ambitious young woman named Sonja, who has also earned the affection of the arrogant and vindictive Welles.
The story of Samuels is pretty conventional coming-of-age stuff and honestly, it is not that interesting. Because of this, the movie plods along and at times can be very dull. It also doesn't help that as played by Zac Efron, Samuels feels like a modern character thrown into a 1930s drama. I do think that Efron is a talented actor, but this role just didn't quite work for him
On the other hand, an actor who I have never heard of, Christian McKay, is spot-on as Welles. Although he may look slightly older than the twenty-two years that Welles would have been in 1937, he has perfected everything from Welles' larger-than-life, blusterous persona to the subtle facial expressions and tics. Even his eyes look eerily like Welles'. Now, perhaps McKay's embodiment of Welles is based more on the young Charles Foster Kane than Welles himself, but either way, I felt like I was watching Welles.
Some other characters playing real persons may not have jumped off the screen as the characters they were portraying, but they fit in nicely and the actor playing Joseph Cotton really did look like him.
I did enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at the production of Caesar, which was famous for, among other things, dressing its Shakespearean characters in modern garb that resembled those worn by soldiers in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. I actually wish the film would have focused more on the play itself and the reaction that inevitably had to follow, instead of getting got up in the Richard Samuels plot that just didn't quite work.
Much ado has been made of the Me in Me & Orson Welles. When the film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, audiences were astounded by the portrayal of a young Welles by virtual unknown Christian McKay.
But there was equally vociferous griping about the decision to cast Zac Efron as a high-school student who gets dragged into the maelstrom that was Welles' 1937 New York stage production of Julius Caesar. (He is subsequently flung out again, one week older and many years wiser.) The refrain went something like: "The High School Musical guy? Too bubblegum! They cast Deborah Kerr in The King and I, not Annette Funicello!"
In fact, the casting works perfectly well. Efron excels at playing the cocky young rube -- whether through acting prowess or natural inclination I leave for you to decide -- but it's not his pretty face we're watching, despite his top billing and central spot on the movie's poster.
In 1937, Welles was a 22-year-old wunderkind, not yet famous for his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds (1938) or his cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), but already a self-styled Prometheus. He was clearly talented, boisterous and yet deeply flawed, as anyone could see who got close enough to his brilliance without being blinded by it.
This is a tall order for any actor, but McKay had unwittingly done his homework. He portrayed the great man in a one-man show called Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles that started at the Edinburgh festival and played in London, Toronto and New York. This last stop was where director Richard Linklater (Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly) took in a performance and knew he'd found his Welles.
McKay's act is a masterpiece of facial control. His features are in constant motion, like clouds -- and, like clouds, able to shift from placid to stormy as quickly as the wind changes. His eyes flash impishly, seriously, angrily, sometimes in a single scene, or even a single sentence. He is (to borrow from another of Shakespeare's plays) Puck and Oberon rolled into one. Efron's character, in contrast, is one of the rude mechanicals, performing in a play within the play that is Welles' life unfolding.
At least as much attention is given to the voice. McKay is the best booming Orsonian orator since Maurice LaMarche voiced him (over Vincent D'Onofrio's mug) in 1994's Ed Wood. (LaMarche later used the same tone for the rodent genius in the cartoon series Pinky and the Brain.) Welles' sometimes meaningless aphorisms are given weight not by any inherent logic but through his sonorous delivery, as though he were reciting from one of Moses' tablets. "Consonants! Consonants! Consonants!" he roars at one of his thespians. "And don't forget the vowels!"
Welles' coterie includes Eddie Marsan as theatre owner and future Oscar-winner John Houseman; Ben Chaplin and James Tupper as, respectively, George Coulouris and Jospeh Cotton, both of whom would go on to make Citizen Kane; and the always-ethereal Claire Danes as production assistant Sonja Jones, who is so far out of Efron's league that she must be fictional.
Part of the fun is watching this company try to balance sycophancy as a means of self-preservation with the need for self-respect. Efron's character thinks he has mastered the equilibrium, but falling for the prettiest woman in the stable of the alpha male is a sure recipe for disaster.
Linklater's balance is more assured, and he gives ample time and space to McKay. One marvellous scene has Welles arriving at the Mutual Network for a recording of The Shadow (in which he played the title role for a year) and delivering an extemporaneous monologue that has the rest of the cast flipping their scripts and scratching their heads until he neatly pulls the scene back to the point at which he left it.
It's moments like these we realize why the kid stays the picture. McKay as Welles has to be seen to be believed, and it is through Efron that we see him.