The most significant American artist before Andy Warhol to take “the media” as his medium, Orson Welles lives on not only in posthumously restored director’s cuts of his re-released movies, but as a character in other people’s novels, plays, and movies—notably Richard Linklater’s deft, affectionate, and unexpectedly enjoyable Me and Orson Welles.
Like Tim Robbins’s far less adroit Cradle Will Rock, released exactly a decade ago, Me and Orson Welles concerns a legendary Welles stage production, namely his 1937 black-shirt version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This cut-and-paste anti-fascist spectacle—characterized in its original press material as the “Death of a Dictator” and in a frantic state of revision up until opening night—was the Mercury Theatre’s first Broadway show. It was also its 22-year-old director’s personal triumph, if more for his bravura use of lighting and bare-bones stagecraft to evoke the spectacle of mob rule than his distracted performance as the bumbling “bourgeois intellectual” Brutus.
Adapted from a novel by high school English teacher Robert Kaplow, Linklater’s movie views Welles’s achievement from the perspective of a high school student (teenage heartthrob Zac Efron), slightly younger but scarcely less stage-struck or brash. Dubbed “Junior” by Welles (British actor Christian McKay), the lad brazens his way into a minor part as Brutus’s lute-strumming page, a week before the play is set to open. “You’re not getting anything except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson’s spit,” Welles’s assistant (Claire Danes) good-naturedly warns him, scarcely out of her teens and pleased to play the worldly older woman. Actually, the callow but competent Junior gets away with quite a bit (up to a point), even as he learns something about performing and human nature—or at least about the nature of Orson Welles.
So do we, thanks to a rich—bordering on plummy—performance by McKay, who previously inhabited this part in the Off-Broadway one-man show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles. His vocal impression of Welles is pitch-perfect, and he nails Welles’s ironic twinkle and assured, mocking self-importance. He portrays the shamelessly hammy, hilariously patronizing, craftily manipulative Welles learning how to play Welles—that his performance is clearly modeled on Welles’s own as the young Charles Foster Kane actually enriches Citizen Kane in retrospect. Me and Orson Welles doesn’t lack for vivid turns—including Danes’s ambitious college girl, Eddie Marsan’s distracted John Houseman, James Tupper’s affable Joseph Cotten, and Ben Chaplin’s high-strung George Coulouris—but McKay naturally steals the show, even as Welles steals Junior’s girl.
For all of its virtues, Me and Orson is not perfect. The thrifty period mise-en-scène is oversaturated with ’30s popular music (although not, curiously, the modernist-cabaret score Marc Blitzstein provided for the stage production), and the screenplay gives only a perfunctory sense of the era’s Popular Front politics (Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy opened on Broadway one week before). But, percolating with backstage banter and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Me and Orson is a spirited, confident, and even edifying piece of work. Welles takes Junior along when he rushes off to do a radio play, with the airy assurance that one can learn all that needs to be known about radio drama in an hour. (Actually, it only takes 10 minutes—the length of this richly comic sequence.) Linklater’s climactic opening night provides a similarly convincing précis of Welles’s production. It’s easy to understand why, despite drama critic George Jean Nathan’s celebrated dis (“Playing Julius Caesar in modern dress strikes me as being of a piece with playing Room Service in togas”), the production was a tremendous success.
Would that Linklater had quit while he was ahead. Burdened by an unnecessary subplot featuring Zoe Kazan’s aspiring writer, Me and Orson goes disconcertingly soft toward the end—throwing away the provocative notion that the entire episode might have been Junior’s classroom daydream for a more conventional closer. This nod to naturalism is itself cancelled out by the sentimental addition of Orson’s sotto voce “thank you,” directed to the back of the long-suffering Houseman. This momentary deflation of the Welles ego is the least convincing moment in the film.