Posted Tuesday night, August 2, 2016.
The interns were at work re-organizing the archives again and they turned up my 2010 review of Me and Orson Welles, a little gem of a film directed by Richard Linklater. If you’ve never seen it, I heartily recommend it, if only for Christian McKay’s brilliant turn as Welles. I plan to watch it again soon myself.
Christian McKay as Orson Welles in director Richard Linklater’s period fable, Me and Orson Welles.
Seems like a cranky thing to say, coming from a director whose new movie is about Orson Welles’ 1937 staging of Julius Caesar:
There are enough of those movies made as it is: sequels, remakes, franchises. It depresses me. It's the way the industry is going. They figure they can make these huge-ass Harry Potters, Batmans and Transformers, spend $200m on a surefire hit, and who cares about the quality? They've basically stopped making my kind of movies altogether.
That’s Richard Linklater, whose Me and Orson Welles you’d think wouldn’t have gotten made if all the movie industry cared about were guaranteed blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Me and Orson Welles has two target audiences, die-hard Zac Efron fans and people who’ve seen and loved Citizen Kane, which is not a miniscule demographic, but nobody will get rich selling action figures to us. Well, maybe to the Zac Efron fans. At any rate, it’s not a small group but it tends to be concentrated in places where I’m not living, which explains why I had to wait for it to come out on DVD to see it.
He doesn’t want to make a movie just for the sake of cashing in.
Which is all he thinks the industry does anymore.
An old, old story, complicated in this re-telling by the collapse of the independent film distribution market.
"I caught a groove where the whole process of making movies didn't feel stressful," he says. "I had a good run of eight or 10 films. And then all it took was two films: Fast Food Nation [his fumbled 2005 adaptation of the Eric Schlosser book] and this one, where I thought: 'Wow, this is a really tough business.' This one especially almost pushed the bounds of possibility."
Me and Orson Welles was largely shot in the Isle of Man, way back in the early months of 2008. It was hoped that the movie would find a distributor at that year's Cannes film festival, and then again at the Toronto film festival. But by that point the recession was biting and cash offers proved thin on the ground. Ultimately the film's producers cut a deal in which they effectively released the film themselves, splitting marketing costs with the Vue cinema chain. All of which caught the director by surprise.
"I'd always seen the film industry as a constant," he says. "And then all of a sudden the bottom fell out." He now finds himself in an alien terrain; indie distributors have gone to the wall and the directors have become self-publishers, streaming their films for an online audience. He's not sure he likes it. "I still hold on to the romantic vision of people watching my movie in a cinema," he admits. "I don't want to watch Bright Star on a fucking iPhone."
This is only a part of the interview Linklater did with the Guardian’s Xan Brooks last December. The other part, the best part, is Linklater’s comparing himself to Orson Welles, not as a fellow genius but as a fellow director with the same sort of professional headaches and heartbreaks:
Linklater, by contrast, strikes me as an altogether more gentle and collegiate soul. I'm expecting him to shake his head at such antics. If anything he seems to applaud them. "Hey, if you want to work on stage or in a film, then that's how it is. There's only one director. Ships have only one captain. If you have a problem with the way he's doing things, I wouldn't suggest challenging him in front of the whole cast and crew. That's a lesson in integrity."
Me and Orson Welles tells the story of a precocious high school senior named Richard (played by Zac Efron doing a decent job of acting and making the case that he shouldn’t be blamed for having started out his career on the Disney Channel as a tweenage heartthrob) who dreams of being an artist someday. He’s not sure what sort of artist. He loves music, loves the theatre, loves writing and poetry. As he says of himself late in the film, “I just want to be part of it.” At the moment theatre is uppermost in his affections and he’s adopting the persona of an aspiring actor. One day he plays hooky to wander about New York City and two wonderful to the point of being magical things happen.
First, at the public library, he meets a nice girl named Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) who is struggling to become a writer.
Richard’s life is immediately swallowed up by the play, which is the same thing as being immediately swallowed up by Welles’ ego. Welles appears to take a real liking to Richard, but it’s like the liking a child takes to new favorite toy. Welles sees all his players as his to play with. They are instruments in his one-man orchestra. Richard is a new violin Welles looks forward to teaching himself how to play and he expects that he will play it beautifully.
Of course, any instrument that fails to respond to Welles’ liking takes the blame and gets quickly smashed.
Most of the movie is spent at the Mercury Theatre, but Richard does get back to the library to see the nice girl now and then. She’s easy to find since she spends most of her time sitting in front of a large Grecian urn that reminds her of Keats’ Ode and from which she takes both inspiration and heart.
Richard is presented with two contrasting---although as it turns out not necessarily conflicting---approaches to art. One is Gretta’s, in which ego is sublimated to serving art. The other is Welles’.
Sounds like a fable.
And there is a folkloric feel to the story. Young Simple leaves his home to go to the fair and learns that the great wide world is a more complicated, corrupt, and corrupting place than he imagined.
If Richard is Simple, then among the rogues he encounters at the fair, Welles is the chief rogue, the prince of thieves, the king of the gypsies.
But Linklater doesn’t play this as a fable. There’s no Wes Anderson-style whimsicality or borderline magic realism gently warning us not to take this at face value. Me and Orson Welles is shot as a realistic period piece, with those Isle of Man locations standing in convincingly for a few blocks of Manhattan circa 1937. The most fantastic thing in Me and Orson Welles is the Fantastic Mr Welles, a character who seems to have had to come out of a folk tale, because no real human being like this could possibly have existed.
Of course, Orson Welles was a literary creation. Created by…Orson Welles. In the movie we see the ingenious young Welles fashioning the legend of the Boy Genius Orson Welles on the fly, grabbing at everything he thinks he can use to help build that legend, and mostly what he grabs is other people.
As Linklater has it, Welles was a prince of thieves. What he stole, though, was ideas, credit, friends’ girlfriends and wives, time and attention, and other people’s energy, spirit, affection, and, in a very real way, their bodies and talents---when you went to work for Orson Welles he owned you. Like I said, people, actors, mainly, were his instruments, and you had no more right to object to how he decided to put you to use than that violin has to how it is played.
“I am Orson Welles! And each and every one of you stands here as an adjunct to my genius!”
There are only two people in his company who can resist him. One is Richard, whose heart and soul aren’t up for grabs because he’s already given them to Art. The other is Sonja, the company’s chief administrative assistant and Jill of All Trades, who is safe because she has boxed up her heart and soul and stored them away to be called for later. Sonja is played by a wry and no-nonsense Claire Danes with a constant somewhat sinister smile that, like the Cheshire Cat’s, implies she doesn’t have to take any of Welles’ or the other company members’ nonsense seriously because she knows she’s on her way out of here. She’s talented, hardworking, ambitious, and cannily opportunistic, and at any moment she’s going to disappear to move on to bigger and better things outside the theatre, leaving nothing behind but the memory of her smile.
She has to take a certain amount of abuse from Welles, now, because it serves her ambitions, at the moment. But except for Richard, all the other members of the company accept Welles’ abuse because he is their only hope of serving their ambitions.
Welles knows this and takes egregious and unconscionable advantage of it.
Welles is a monster of ego. There is nothing he can’t or won’t do that he decides needs doing to serve his ambitions and his vanity and the only reason that doesn’t include bank robbery and murder is that either would be beneath his genius. He is too smart, too charming, and too blessed by the gods to need to resort to vulgar criminality.
Charm, guile, and sheer force of will see him through.
Welles is the villain of Richard’s story. What’s intriguing about the movie is that it allows us to see that Welles is not just the hero of his own story but the hero of the stories of most of the Mercury Theatre’s players stories.
Welles is appalling. And there are points in the movie when you want to take satisfaction in what is going to happen to him, not in 1937, but by 1985 when he died at the surprisingly young age of 70. Surprising because by then it seemed that the once upon a time boy genius had been old for a very, very long time.
Welles spent the last third of his life not as a Prince of Thieves but as essentially a beggar, desperately trying to find financing to get his movies made, and his chief ploy---the “Crippled War Veteran” sign he wore around his neck while he begged---was to present himself as an outrageous self-parody. The Welles of the Dean Martin Roasts and the Tonight Show magic tricks and the “Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time" ads was, by his own design, a clown who fancies himself a fallen king but who believes in his own delusion so completely that his audience wants to believe along with him. It was a sad play to get people to reach for their wallets out of a mix of pity and wishful thinking and, while watching certain scenes in the movie you can’t help thinking “It must have been humiliating for him. Good!”
But remember. Linklater is on Welles’ side. At least in the struggle between director and actors.
While Welles treats them horribly, Linklater makes us see that his horribleness is necessary to their success. They are all too weak to survive in the theatre on their own. That doesn’t mean that they are all weak in the sense of having flawed characters, although most of them do, and several of them are as vain and egomaniacal as Welles’ himself, even more so, as they can’t see past their own vanities. Welles has a self-awareness that they all lack. But even the best of them are weak in the sense that ordinary mortals need Superman to break through brick walls and stop runaway locomotives for them.
You can’t be an actor unless somebody casts you in a play or a movie and then sees that the play gets produced or the movie gets made, and given all the obstacles---see Linklater on the movie industry above---that takes superhuman will, energy, drive, and confidence.
We can forgive Welles most of what he does to his players, even to Richard, if we keep in mind what is coming and realize that without Welles’ superhuman efforts of will, energy, drive, and confidence there would be no Citizen Kane.
We also need to keep in mind that even with that superhuman will, energy, drive, and confidence and the reputation he’d earned for Citizen Kane he couldn’t get The Magnificent Ambersons released as the movie he made or make another film to rival either of his first two.
Richard and Gretta believe in art for art’s sake. Welles knows that there is no art except for Welles’ sake. Linklater believes that Richard and Gretta’s point of view has an essential truth. His life and career have taught him that Welles’ point of view is what makes their point of view, even their lives as aspiring artists, possible.
In order for Me and Orson Welles to work---for it to make any sense---you not only have to know that there really was an egomaniacal bastard genius named Orson Welles, you have to believe he could have been a bastard in exactly the way the movie portrays him. You have to believe that the movie’s Welles is the Orson Welles.
Which is apparently why God created Christian McKay.
McKay’s performance is brilliant and magical. It’s not an impersonation so much as a recapitulation, the way a son can resemble his father to such an uncanny degree that it frightens people who knew the latter as a young man. McKay is so like Welles in expression, manner, and intonation that he has reason to ask his mother if she was by any chance near the set of Treasure Island or The Man Who Came Dinner nine or so months before he was born.
I think Me and Orson Welles is only comprehensible to people who have seenCitizen Kane. It’s more fun for people who not only have seen it but who are familiar enough with its history and the history of the Mercury Theatre to recognize some of the other names besides Welles’ and to see in Eddie Marsan’s and James Tuppen’s performances the resemblances to the real John Houseman and Joseph Cotton.
That may be a niche audience too small for the money people in the movie industry to see as worth chasing, but it’s not all that small a niche or demographically segregated.
A little while ago I was in our local video store and browsing the drama section nearby me was a group of kids, two guys and two girls, friends, it seemed, not a pair of couples. They were college-aged but things about the way they were dressed, the way they talked and treated each other made me think they weren’t college students. These were working class kids already out in the world on their own holding down the blue or pink collar jobs they would count themselves lucky to hold down for life. One of the guys was their leader in picking out the movie for the night and he was making suggestions based on his own quite clearly considerable movie-watching experience. He wasn’t reading the boxes. He was telling them off the top of his head the plots and who starred in the movies and what other movies they’d starred in and what other movies they’d all seen that were like the potential choices. They had narrowed it down to four or five DVDs until he spotted yet another title he recognized.
He snatched the box from the shelf. “Oh. Have you seen this one? You’ve got to see this one! It’s supposed to be one of the best movies ever made!”
On that recommendation the others agreed right away.
I don’t have to tell you what that movie was, right?
Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater, screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo & Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow. Starring Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan, Ben Chaplin, James Tupper, and Leo Bill. Rated PG-13. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.