Few American dramatists ever towered over the worlds of stage, screen, and the airwaves like Orson Welles. Though he’s remembered by many for his later career difficulties and financial woes, Welles’ twenties included an astonishing five-year run comprising the landmark stage production Voodoo Macbeth, the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and Citizen Kane, a film commonly argued to be the greatest ever made. Now, the film Me and Orson Welles revisits the heady days when Welles was part “boy genius,” part “enfant terrible.”
Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel, Me and Orson Welles transports the audience to 1937 New York, where the larger-than-life director is staging his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Ostensibly the story belongs to the “Me” in the title: a seventeen-year-old aspiring Bohemian named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron). In a moment of whimsy, Welles hires Richard off the street to play the small part of Lucius, and thus begins a whirlwind week in which the teen will live and learn from a legend while experiencing the first blush of love. Though he’s sarcastically warned, “You’re not getting anything but the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson’s spit,” Richard has a ringside side to history and a chance to discover himself in the process.
While watching the mercurial Welles storm around his Mercury Theatre, Richard befriends soon to be famous actors Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill). Like every other man in the company, Richard is taken with production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a conspicuously smart and ambitious woman who sees her current job as a stepping stone to another with Hollywood producer David O. Selznick. Almost entirely unconscious of anyone’s needs but his own, Welles keeps his cast and crew on call ’round the clock, though he frequently disappears for extramarital quickies or to perform one of the radio shows that pays the bills (the recreation of a CBS radio broadcast is one of the film’s many comic highlights).
Welles fans will be beside themselves enjoying the esoteric detail captured by screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., associates of director Richard Linklater. Down the line, Linklater has enlisted the right people for the jobs: the charming Efron to reach (and educate) an audience that’s never heard of Orson Welles, or never cared; production designer Laurence Dorman to craft the ingenious period recreations of New York City and cinematographer Dick Pope (Topsy-Turvy) to shoot them; and above all, Christian McKay to do the impossible: convince us that this is Orson Welles.
McKay first played Welles in the celebrated one-man show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles. His prodigious talent and shrewd judgment of character take him well beyond impersonation to capture Welles’ essence as a gifted artist and a gifted bluffer, a master manipulator and magician. Without McKay, Me and Orson Welles would be unthinkable as a film; with him, Linklater’s delightful celebration of the arts turns out to be one of the season’s most surprising gifts.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]