“ME AND ORSON WELLES”
Film Review by Rob Farr © 2010
(From Radio Recall, February 2010)
Me and Orson Welles slipped into movie theaters on December 3, 2009 only to be quickly swept away by the tsunami of holiday releases. Audiences hungry for the 3-D/IMAX effects of Avatar and the head-bashing pyrotechnics of Sherlock Holmes scarcely noticed Richard Linklater’s coming of age tale set against the earliest days of the Mercury Theater.
But hopefully Me and Orson Welles will have a well-deserved afterlife on DVD, Blu-Ray, and media not yet invented. For the film is a gem that every OTR, theater and cinema buff will treasure for its loving recreation of New York’s entertainment scene circa 1937.
Teen heartthrob Zac Efron (High School Musical) plays a young acting student whose experiences were loosely based on those of Arthur Anderson. Richard Samuels lucks into the break of a lifetime when he is drafted to play Lucius in Orson Welles’ anti-fascist, modern dress version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Cast members Joseph Cotton, Norman Lloyd, George Coulouris and producer John Houseman were all young unknowns just getting their first breaks, but the enfant terrible of the troupe was 22-year-old Orson Welles.
In the fall of 1937 Welles was just beginning to take his place on the national stage having made headlines in New York for defying the Federal Theater Project’s orders to shutter his radical production of The Cradle Will Rock. The public was beginning to know him from his radio work as the creator and star of some well-received classical adaptations for the Columbia Workshop and Mutual’s Les Miserables.
Welles always considered radio as little more than a source of easy revenue to fund his theatrical career and it was around this time that he took over the role of Lamont Cranston for his single season run as The Shadow.
Me and Orson Welles has a wonderful but brief scene set at the CBS Radio studio. Established radio stars Les Tremayne and Barbara Luddy glare at Welles in astonished disbelief when the young upstart begins improvising his own scenario to fend off boredom and spice up an otherwise mundane script.
Into this volatile world steps young Samuels, thrilled at his good fortune and sure that his role as Lucius will be the first step in a brilliant acting career. The young man becomes infatuated with the company’s Girl Friday, played by Claire Danes, and wins the grudging admiration of his male colleagues when he seems poised to be the first suitor to get to first base.
Meanwhile the young Mercury Theater company struggles with a ramshackle theater, technical malfunctions, and most of all, the massive ego and genius that is Orson Welles. The famed writer/director/producer/actor has been portrayed in a number of novels, films and plays since his death in 1985, but no actor has captured his essence better than Christian McKay, a British actor in his first major film role.
Even though the film derives from Robert Kaplow’s novel for young readers, the screenwriters and McKay pull no punches in revealing Welles as the megalomaniacal monster that many of his contemporaries remember him being. Caesar and the Mercury had to be a success, so Welles wantonly seduced, flattered and discarded his actors without regard for anything but the success of his show and the glorification of Orson Welles.
Me and Orson Welles will stand as one of the best films ever made about the agonies and joys of live theater. McKay’s performance will certainly stand as one of the most brilliant depictions of a real-life theatrical personality. And the DVD will be a treasure in the collection of any Radio Recall reader. Watch for it.
According to the film’s official web site,
this picture was shot in 2008 in three primary locations: London, the Isle of Man,and New York City. After an screening at the Cannes Festival, it was first released in Toronto in September 2008. The U.S. release followed a year later, in November 2009, and in London one month later. Running time is 107 minutes.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Rob Farr is the executive producer for Arlington County's government access channel, AVN. He also founded the Slapsticon Film Festival, which celebrates classic film comedy for four days each July. Rob has been a member of the MWOTRC since joining in 1988.