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Me and Orson Welles (2008)

| May 28, 2011 | 0 Comments

If you run down the list of achievements and dubious exercises in the 70 years that Orson Welles occupied this life, you will see a life that bolsters more interesting twists and turns then any ten people that you can probably name. He did everything: he was a film director, a theater director, a radio director, an actor, a writer and a magician. He founded The Mercury Theater and ran it like a dictator. He was a master of radio who produced a Halloween broadcast of “War of the Worlds” that nearly caused riots in the small community of Grover’s Mills, New Jersey.

At the age of 25, he was given unprecedented creative control by RKO to make his first film, Citizen Kane, a film that so angered newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst that he tried to stonewall its release. None-the-less, the film would be lauded as the greatest American film ever made. Even with that, his career as a film director was cut short. He butted heads with Hollywood studio moguls who curtailed his creativity and practically ran him out of the business. In his short film career he would create a roster of brilliant film work including not only Kane but The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man and Touch of Evil.

Late in his life, he would become a walking joke. There were the fat jokes, the Paul Masson commercials, the Nostradamus documentary and that infamous hot dog eating contest. Yet, even with those embarrassments, you can say that Welles, while having suffered a stunted film career, never-the-less lived a life that was anything but boring.

Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, captures Welles at the beginning of his career, but not the beginning of his brilliance. What is captured here, in a magnificent performance by stage actor Christian McKay, is a man of overinflated self-confidence, of charm, and of merciless dictatorial style. He was, as we can see in this film, a monument to himself but not someone who was off-putting. You want to sit in the front row just to listen to him talk.

The film takes place in 1938 at The famous Mercury Theater, where 23 year-old Welles and his overworked staff are preparing a production of Julius Caeser set in the reign of Mousselini. That means that Caeser will be performed but the actors will dress in the black Nazi regalia and jack boots. Some of the actors we know: Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), George Coulourous (Ben Chapman) – who later played Mr. Thatcher in Citizen Kane. Yet, our focus into Welles’ theater comes from Richard Samuals (Zach Effron), a struggling actor who makes his way into Welles’ circle and eventually into a bit part in Caeser.

The kid comes under Welles tutelage and his near-insane style of directing. One of the things that Linklater gets perfect in this film is the back-breaking work that goes on behind the scenes at in a theater company. There are the preparations, the rehearsals, the manic casting and script changes, the personal petty feuds, the problems with budget and of course the problems of working under and egomaniac like Welles. McKay occupies the role in such a way that his presence is felt even when he is off-screen. It isn’t just the voice and the face and the mannerisms that McKay gets right, but the very essence of Orson Welles. This is a magnificent performance, so much so that when I saw the film at Ebertfest, his name in the credits drew thunderous applause.

What happens in the film is the old backstage story of the kid who tries to make it into the inner circle of the theater company. Yet, it is surprisingly devoid of clich├ęs. What Linklater wants to capture is the feel of the backstage process, of the tensions and in-fighting that go on. Mixed with that comes the story of Welles and his tense relationship with everyone. His ego is a Maypole that everyone is forced to dance around. When we get to the ending, and see the performance of Julius Caeser, we see the result of the company’s efforts, it is a sight to behold, not just a good performance of a famous play, but the efforts of tireless people working under an insufferable, but undeniably great artist.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2008) View IMDB Filed in: Drama