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Me and Orson Welles (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Run time 107 minutes.

Not for children.

Despite what sounds like an ungrammatical title (it could be the end of the sentence, “This is the story of me and Orson Welles”), I’ve seen very few movies that I wanted to continue, but I would have been serenely happy had this kept going for another hour, it was so entertaining. This is a fictionalized account of the final week in preparation of Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) 1937 truncated production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” by the fledgling Mercury Theater. Director Richard Linklater has taken a brilliant screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo (from Robert Kaplo’s novel) and produced a scintillating recreation of a bygone era and a fascinating portrait of a man whose reputation as an American genius is more reputation and style than actual accomplishment.

Just about everything about this movie is terrific, but a big impetus in setting it on a plateau is the music (Marc Marot as music supervisor with original score by Michael J. McEvoy; I’m not sure who picked the songs and the way they are played, which include Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, but I’m assuming it was Marot). The music carries this film aloft to heights of enjoyment few films achieve.

The story of Welles is told through the eyes of an enthusiastic teen, 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who luckily lands a part in Welles’ first production for Mercury. As such he meets people like producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and young actor Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), falls in love with Welles’ assistant, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), and learns big lessons about life.

But, good as Efron is, this isn’t a story about Richard, it’s a story about Orson Welles, at the beginning of his life of fame and controversy. Although at 35 McKay is far too old to play the 1937 Welles (who was only 22 in 1937), he gives a bravura performance as a young man who seems in total control of everything. Unlike some other actors playing real people he doesn’t try to sound exactly like Orson, although there is a similarity. Instead, he recreates the man’s pompous personality, charm, and self-confidence.

The film’s presentation of that week of rehearsals, actors preparing for what became a memorable event, the way that Welles cajoled them into giving the performance he wanted, and the interplay among them all, is captivating. Because the film ignores his age, and because McKay looks like the 35-year-old man he is, it makes the viewing so much more enjoyable if one keeps in mind the tenderness of Welles’ actual years. Who he was, how he dominated, and what he accomplished at such a young age are truly extraordinary.

Welles used to eat lunch every day at Ma Maison restaurant on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Ma Maison was such an “in” place that it had an unlisted number. But it was worth the trip (even if the food hadn’t been good, which it was) just to catch a glimpse of the rotund former prodigy. Orson had a presence and McKay captures it with effortless ease.

I had a friend who appeared as a guest with Welles on a Merv Griffin show. Despite his confident appearance, she told me that when she looked at him at one of the breaks his eyes were filled with fear. Maybe his ability to hide and channel fear validates his reputation as an exceptional actor.

The weakest part of the film is Danes, an actress I’ve admired for her performances in films like “Stage Beauty” (2004), “Evening” (2007) and “Stardust” (2007). In this, unlike the others, she misses the mark. She is far too effervescent and scintillating for the part she plays, an ambitious woman who eagerly succumbs to Welles’ exercising his droit du seigneur to get ahead. Most of the time when she was onscreen I found her unpersuasive.

But that is far outweighed by the ambience Linklater creates, and the performances of McKay and Efron.  I could have watched another hour. In fact, the only reason I looked at my watch was to hope that the end wasn’t approaching. This is a film that will delight those who, like me, exult in the hesternal excitements of yesteryear.