“Me and Orson Welles” Displays True Genius
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
You’re probably way too young to remember Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air, the live radio series he produced from 1938 to 1940. You’re more likely to recall Welles as that fat guy who used to do TV commercials about selling no wine before its time.
Fact is, Orson Welles was a true creative genius. Not only did he broadcast that historic 1938 “War of the Worlds” performance that convinced listeners America was being attacked by aliens from outer space, but he also produced, co-wrote, and directed 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” considered by many (including me) to be the greatest motion picture of all time.
Before all that, he’d produced an inventive adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in modern dress that won him great acclaim.
“Me and Orson Welles” – a delightful little indie film that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – tells the story of a teenager who is hired to perform in that 1937 production of “Julius Caesar” and falls for a pretty assistant who is having a fling with Welles.
Teen heartthrob Zac Efron (“High School Musical” et al.) stars as a 17-year-old boy who is inadvertently offered the role of Lucius by Welles’ in the play’s Broadway debut. Claire Danes (“Stardust,” “Shopgirl”) is the ambitious young lady in question. And Christian McKay (“Abraham’s Point”) gives a spot-on perfect performance as that libidinous prodigy, Orson Welles himself.
Call it a coming-of-age film about young love and heartbreak … or look at it as a period drama offering a behind-the-scenes peek at Mercury Theater’s sturm und drang.
“Me and Orson Welles” is based on a book by Robert Kaplow. Richard Linklater (“Fast Food Nation,” “The School of Rock”) stepped in to direct the film after financing was put together. Key West’s Karin Prince worked with Linklater on one of his early films, “Dazed and Confused.” She says, “We really hoped it would be successful because we had to push his car to get it started every day after work. He was so broke.”
Linklater’s done pretty well as it turns out. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his “Before Sunset.” And he drives a better car.
While Linklater’s known for his films about “the youth rebellion continuum," you’ll find that “Me and Orson Welles” is more cerebral.
The casting is great. You will like Efron and Danes as the feckless young twosome, but it’s Christian McKay who steals the show as the man know for stealing shows. Before being cast in the film, McKay had already had experience portraying Welles in a small one-man play titled “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.”
Being that McKay was actually born in England, he had been showcased in a production titled “Brits off Broadway.” However, Welles was a Wisconsin-born who was taken in by Dr. Dudley Crafts Watson of the Chicago Art Institute after his mother died. By the age of ten, he and Watson’s same-aged daughter ran away from home to sing on street corners. Later, he traveled to Ireland and bluffed himself into a role at Gate Theater in Dublin. The manager didn’t believe the young man to be the Broadway star he claimed, but was impressed by his brashness.
Returning to America, he worked as a radio actor in New York before being hired by John Houseman for a WPA production of “Macbeth.” Houseman and Welles then formed Mercury Theater which became famous for its radio broadcasts using a repertory company of then-unknown actors like Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, Delores Del Rio, Vincent Price, and Martin Gable.
I once met Agnes Moorehead, late in her career, while she was playing the witch Endora in the ABC comedy series “Bewitched.” She reminisced about her days with Mercury Theater and Orson Welles: “He was a true genius. You don’t meet many of them guys.”
Even Rita Hayworth cited as the reason for her divorce from Welles, “I can’t take his genius any more.”
Welles is not the only genius here. You’ll have to admit after seeing Christian McKay’s performance as the womanizing, bombastic, yet creative title character in “Me and Orson Welles,” he has a touch of genius himself.
[from Solares Hill]