Monday, November 23, 2009

Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles

The inaugural production of Mercury Theatre had to make a suitably bold statement. In what was then a radical departure from tradition (but has since become conventional), Welles recast Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Fascist Europe. Though the Mercury’s production of Caesar: Death of a Dictator was truly groundbreaking, the true star was Brutus, played by company cofounder and artistic director Orson Welles. Though in 1937 the Great Depression continued unabated while Fascism spread across Europe, it was still a heady time for one teenaged actor who witnesses the chaos of Welles’s creative process firsthand in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.

British actor Goerge Coulouris had the lead role of Mark Antony. Joseph Cotton had a small part as Publius. Yet the two actors best remembered from Welles’s celebrated Caesar, were of course the director himself, and the young Lucius, who serenaded Brutus in a pivotal late scene. In Linklater’s film, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, that young actor is a wide-eyed Richard Samuels, who yearns to be part of the New York smart-set. However, working for the tempestuous auteur would be an education in and of itself for the young actor.

Welles can be charming, but he is also a demanding taskmaster. Though married, he has quite the roving eye. Yet his genius compensates for his arrogance—at least up to a point. In some of the film’s most insightful scenes, the brash Welles seems to understand on some level that he is just one failure away from a major karma blowback.

Given the renowned figures associated with the Mercury, Linklater had a number of casting challenges, but none was greater than the larger-than-life Welles. Yet, in choosing the virtually unknown Christian McKay, he found an actor able to approximate Welles’s incomparable presence, without descending into mere impersonation. Discovered while performing in the very off-off-Broadway production Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, McKay captures the both the cadences and intensity of the Welles so familiar from his classic films.

In another tricky bit of casting, Eddie Marsan’s small but important supporting turn as John Houseman, the great British character actor (by way of Hungary), is absolutely pitch-perfect. His Houseman is an island of modest dignity amid the bedlam loosed by Welles’s destructive genius. While it is an even smaller role, Canadian actor James Tupper is also quite convincing as Joseph Cotton.

In a way, it is rather appropriate that High School Musical’s Zac Efron would have the lead in a film about the capriciousness of show business. In fact, he is relatively likable as young Samuels. Unfortunately, his love triangle rivalry with Welles for the affections of the director’s cold-bloodedly ambitious assistant Sonja Jones forms the weakest link of the film. In truth, Claire Danes’s Jones is decidedly unsympathetic and far less attractive than Samuels’s prospective girlfriend, Gretta Adler, an aspiring writer played by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of the great director Elia Kazan).

Orson is utterly unlike Linklater’s prior work (including films like School of Rock and Dazed and Confused), but he clearly has a keen understanding of Orson Welles’s place in cinema history. He keeps the action moving along fairly jauntily, while paying knowing homage to Welles’s brilliant but checkered career.

Production designer Laurence Dorman masterfully recreates 1930’s New York and Jools Holland’s arrangements of vintage swing standards nicely evoke the right period vibe. Indeed, that sense of time and place is one of the handsomely assembled Orson’s greatest strengths. Ultimately, it is an effectively realized valentine to 1930’s Broadway and the mercurial talent of Orson Welles. It opens this Wednesday (11/25) in New York and Los Angeles.