Skimming over the promo material, I have to admit to being less than enthused about this number. A coming-of-age period piece with Zac Efron as the romantic lead? I consoled myself with the hope that the Orson Welles character would add some interest…
Indeed, it all starts off pretty lame. Boy with thespian aspirations meets girl who dreams of being a writer… Okaaay. Warning lights a-flashin’: formulaic development surely ahead. Well, no. No, glorious no! The love tale that is set up in the opening scenes is not picked up again until the very end of the movie.
Instead, we are taken on an excursion into the bohemian heart of late 30s New York experimental theatre, and ne’er a dull moment there is.
The fun begins when 17-year-old Richard Samuels (Efron) attracts the attention of a young Orson Welles (Christian McKay) in an audition queue and is offered a bit part in his upcoming production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre. Wisely, Richard drops out of school to take up Welles’ offer, and embarks on the ride of his life – and a backstage education that beats the hell out of anything he might have learnt in the classroom!
As might be expected, the theatre world is full of eccentric, colourful folk, but all of them pale next to Welles. In a luminous performance that is without doubt the great strength of the movie, McKay gives his Welles a commanding presence.
While the story is built around Richard’s foray into the theatre environs, his primary dramatic function is to provide a vantage point from which the Welles character may be obliquely observed. This is a clever device, for it keeps us at a distance from the Great Man. Emotionally disengaged thus, we do not buy as readily as we might into the strange but widespread and time-honoured social phenomenon of bestowing a moral privilege upon the esteemed artist, such that transgressions that would be condemned in others are tolerated as mere foibles – part of the package that comes with artistic greatness, as it were. Rather, we see Welles as a complex and fascinating enigma: egomaniac, despot, hypocrite, manipulator, philanderer, reprobate – and above all, so tyrannically self-serving as to invite the charge of sociopath, were it not for his towering talent!
Having it off with any female cast or crew member at a snap of his fingers while his pregnant wife remains dutifully at home, with a code word in place to warn him should she venture on set unannounced? That’s just Orson!
Denying he is wrong about anything, even when he demonstrably is, and dismissing on the spot any brave soul who confronts him? That’s just Orson, too!
God of his own dominion, he will tolerate no challenge to his authority, as Richard discovers much to his detriment when he objects to Welles sleeping with his new love interest, production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes)…
Welles’ character would not have succeeded as it does if the film had shied away from serving us up some proof of his genius: the public performance of the play as a stunning denunciation of facism is the dramatic highpoint of the movie.
For anyone with even a passing interest in theatre and its backstage culture, Me and Orson Welles is unmissable. But it also works as a meticulously researched and finely executed period piece, and is worth seeing for McKay’s powerhouse performance alone.
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