Me and Orson Welles (UK/US 2009)

Richard meets Orson

Director Richard Linklater. Screenplay Holly and Vince Palmo from the novel by Robert Kaplow. Deluxe colour in 2.35:1 ratio, 113 minutes, UK/USA 2009.

This is almost a backstage musical, narrating the staging of the Mercury Company’s famed production in 1937 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, [titled Caesar and both edited and staged by Orson Welles].

Within this generic form is the coming-of-age passage of would-be actor Richard Samuels (Zac Efron). Richard is also a sort of younger version of Orson Welles (Christina McKay), at this point only 22 years old and with his great triumph and tribulations still to come.

This is a really enjoyable production, full of both wit and drama. The cast is uniformly good, and McKay in particular is uncannily like the young Welles. Bizarrely Linklater recounts that McKay had to lose weight to be the right size and shape. Among the other cast members I especially enjoyed Eddie Marsan as a harassed John Houseman.

The late 1930s was a great period, and the production design reproduces it very well. As a number of commentators have recently noted The Great Depression produced much great art, in particular great popular art. One especial pleasure is the soundtrack of familiar songs and tunes by composers like George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers and performers like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

The film’s drama builds to the opening night of the play, compressing the actual original time-scale. Like Shakespeare in Love this offers a sense of the great occasion, as everything ‘comes right on the night’. The cinematographer Dick Pope and designer Laurence Dorman do a fine job of recreating this event. In between young Richard learns of the rewards and pitfalls in theatrical life: and in the worlds of sexuality and romance. The Sight & Sound article on the film is headed Ambition’s Debt, punning the play and pointing up the gigantic egos involved in this type of great art.

It is rather appropriate that Welles latest film masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941) is re-released just now. This is a film that really needs to be seen on the large cinema screen, though it also appears on the UK’s BBC 4 over the Xmas season. Alongside this are several other films directed by Welles and a repeat of the BBC’s mammoth 1970s Arena interview with Welles. This is a must for fans of Welles. As I remember at one point his chequered Hollywood career was mentioned and with his usual wit and charm Welles responded, “I always liked Hollywood, it’s just they never reciprocated”.

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