Me and Orson Welles (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Peter Tonguette

Christian McKay as Orson Welles

Directed by Richard Linklater; produced by Ann Carli, Richard Linklater, and Marc Samuelson; screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr., based on the novel by Robert Kaplow; photographed by Dick Pope; edited by Sandra Adair; art design by Laurence Dorman; music by Michael J. McEvoy; starring costumes by Nic Ede; starring Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chaplin, Zoe Kazan. DVD, color, 114 min., 2008. A Warner Home Video release.

One of the most affecting moments in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset—his extraordinary 2004 sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise—occurs when Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are reflecting on the time that has passed since their first encounter in Vienna nine years earlier. “I had this funny—well, horrible—dream the other day,” Celine says. “I was having this awful nightmare that I was thirty-two. And then I woke up and I was twenty-three, so relieved. And then I woke up for real and I was thirty-two.”

To this, Jesse laughs, insisting that he likes getting older. Celine agrees, saying that she “loves it” (a peculiar turn of phrase), but her downcast eyes tell a more complicated story. Indeed, I always took the point of Celine’s dream not to be the actual difference between being thirty-two and being twenty-three as much as the difference nine years makes at any point in a person’s life.

Linklater’s most recent film, Me and Orson Welles, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, sheds a different light on Celine’s dream. It suggests that there is, in fact, something about being in one’s very early twenties that is unique and magical, as well as utterly finite, even for geniuses. Linklater, who proved with Before Sunrise andBefore Sunset that he is uniquely sensitive to matters of age and time, is thus the ideal director for the project.

Orson Welles was twenty-two when he directed the Mercury Theatre’s modern dress production of Julius Caesar in 1937, the rehearsal and opening night of which is depicted with loving detail in Linklater’s film. But in a 1982 interview with the BBC, Welles said that he considered an even earlier production—the so-called “voodooMacbeth”—to be “by all odds my great success in my life.” When it debuted to astonished audiences in April 1936, Welles was all of twenty.

At first glance, it seems odd for Welles to have considered a production from his youth to be the summit of his career. After all, in the same BBC interview, he selected not Citizen Kane, but Chimes at Midnight—produced and released when he was in middle age—as the film he would like to “get into heaven” on the basis of. We must remember, too, that Welles once said, in conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, that “it’s only in your twenties and in your seventies and eighties that you do the greatest work.” I remembered that statement when I interviewed Welles’s companion, Oja Kodar, in 2003, when I myself was twenty, and she said to me, laughing, “Frankly, I’d rather talk to someone who is twenty than who is sixty or something like that!”

What Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous—that the film “does capture how it feels to be a teenager in any period”—is equally true of Me and Orson Welles and its portrayal of “how it feels” to be in one’s twenties. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the film is how much Welles has in common with his youthful colleagues, in spirit, in energy, in ambition, as well as age. “Orson is young, Sam. Forgive him that,” the Mercury’s producer, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), says to set designer Samuel Leve (Al Weaver), rightly upset with Welles about not receiving the proper credit for his contributions.

The film’s fictitious protagonist, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), is dreaming of having something to do with the arts long before he finds himself, by pure chance, playing Lucius in the Mercury’s Julius Caesar. The two most important questions Welles asks before deciding to hire Richard are, “Can you play the ukulele?” and “Will you work for nothing?” One is reminded of the phrase David Thomson used in describing how the cinematographer Gary Graver came to work with Welles many decades later. Graver was, Thomson wrote, “inexplicably plucked out of nowhere by the great man, or taken as a dare, or a whim.”

So many other scenes in Me and Orson Welles contain a “shock of recognition” for those familiar with Welles’s life. I was floored when I saw the film depicting his habit of traveling by ambulance from one job to another. Welles’s own account to the BBC of this unorthodox method of travel—“I discovered there was no law in New York that you had to be sick to travel in an ambulance”—is paraphrased nearly verbatim by one character. In a scene that conveniently places Welles and Richard together in an ambulance, Welles is seen paging through a scribbled-in copy of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, quoting one of its loveliest passages (“We can’t ever tell what will happen at all, can we?”), and speaking of the book’s personal resonances. Linklater and screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr., have the good sense to have him perform a few sleight-of-hand magic tricks, as he’s trying to pick up a girl or bewitch his actors.

Yet, the film’s authenticity is sometimes paper-thin. As Welles, Christian McKay is outwardly perfect. More than any other actor who has portrayed Welles (a lengthy list which by now includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Angus Macfadyen, and Liev Schreiber), McKay most closely resembles him physically. He sounds like Welles, too, and the screenplay gives him amply Wellesian lines to show off with.

But Chris Welles Feder, Welles’s eldest daughter and the author of an essential memoir about him, In My Father’s Shadow, publicly took issue with the film’s characterization of her father (though not with McKay’s performance). She explained to The New York Daily News that it was “inconceivable” that her father “would ever act as he did toward Zac Efron’s character. He was known for being kind to his actors.”

The film is at its weakest and most contrived in its imagining of a love triangle between Welles, Richard, and a Mercury secretary, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), which is at the root of Welles’s betrayal of Richard. There are some lovely moments between Efron and Danes (a winning and underused actress), none more so than a night they surreptitiously spend together at an apartment that usually serves as “Orson’s illicit retreat.” “Sometimes you remember one week for the rest of your life,” Richard says to Sonja, speaking of their almost-romance, but he ought to be referring to the once-in-a-lifetime experience of working with Welles.

Other characterizations seem off, as well, none more than Leo Bill’s interpretation of Norman Lloyd (who played Cinna the Poet), which seems calculated mostly for comic relief. As Welles scholar Joseph McBride put it to me, “I have met Norman on numerous occasions… and he is obviously a more serious and less antic fellow than the one portrayed in the film (who acts like Harpo Marx).” It’s doubly disappointing since Lloyd, in his memoir, Stages Of Life in Theatre, Film and Television,gave us one of the best and most thoughtful firsthand accounts of the Mercury’s Caesar. “I think that to this day, it remains the most exciting Shakespearean production I have ever seen,” he writes. As Joseph Cotten, who played Publius, James Tupper is fine, but his voice hopelessly lacks what critic V.F. Perkins called the “Virginian gentility” of Cotten’s own distinctive voice. Ben Chaplin and Eddie Marsan, as George Coulouris and Houseman, respectively, fare better.

In the end, then, Me and Orson Welles is best appreciated as an expression of Linklater’s feelings about the glories of youth, that “it’s all ahead of us,” as is said in the final scene, as well as a filmed record of McKay’s wonderful performanceLinklater is not averse to revisiting his characters, as is evidenced by Before Sunset, and though McKay told Welles expert Lawrence French that he doesn’t want to play Welles again, I wonder if it is not too much to hope that he and Linklater might return to Welles at seventy or eighty—the time, Welles insisted, that great work could be done again.

To purchase Me and Orson Welles, click here.

Peter Tonguette is the author of The Films of James Bridges, forthcoming from McFarland and Company this spring.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2