Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Me and Orson Welles

"Waiting for Orson"

Young Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is 17, "almost an actor," which puts him just a few hefty years (and worlds) behind the 22 year old Orson Welles (Christian McKay), who has established (by a shoestring) his Mercury Theater in New York, where he is in rehearsals for his modern-dress version of "Julius Caesar"—that is when he is not being whisked from studio to studio by ambulance to perform in various network radio shows, carrying on affairs with ballet dancers, associates, and "just met" women behind the aching back of his pregnant wife.*

Young Samuels manages to vocally pad his resume a bit and kibitzes with some of the players, just enough that
when Welles himself shows up to see the lighting of the big neon sign outside of "his" theater, he sees another bright, shiny object, and as he's about to fire a troublesome actor and "junior" can play the ukulele, Welles hires him on the spot...so he can fire the other kid. "He had a personality problem with Orson," says the Mercury's girl Friday Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). "Meaning he had a personality."

And that just wouldn't do.
It's all about Orson, even when it isn't.

There's not that much difference between on-stage and off-stage because the star of it all is Orson Welles, manufacturing drama where there is none, generating excitement even needlessly, and making sure that the limelight is on him. He is the hero of it all and the villain with the best lines. He desires to be, as Alice Roosevelt said of her president-father, "the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral." Life isn't enough, and art has to be stretched to accommodate him.

So do budgets. This fascist recreation of "Julius Caesar" is "modern dress" because there is no money for costumes, but nobody has to know that, it looks like a comment is being made and art is reflecting life au courant. Just like doing a "Voodoo" Macbeth means his all African-American cast is that much cheaper. It looks like a statement, but its merely the ones with a bottom line.

But it's a fine recreation, and if you're not interested in the details, it still makes a compelling story of getting what you need, whether you want it or not. For those who do know the history, it's particularly fun to see
Big Names tossed off: there's Joe (James Tupper), and Lloyd (Leo Bill) and Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and Jack (Eddie Marsan).** McKay only slightly resembles Welles, and his voice is a timbre higher, but his phrasing, his articulation are spot-on....if the mannerisms seem to be those of the Welles that is familiar on-screen.

And if Zac Efron isn't entirely up to the task of playing his part, that's okay. His role is "Candide," trying to run with thoroughbreds, while he's still admiring the track, crushed with more experienced hoof-tracks. And Efron has just enough skill to do nothing when playing a kid who "doesn't know what he doesn't know." It's a boy's version of "The Devil Wears Prada," but it's also "The Stunt Man," where illusion is all and practiced and can dazzle the rubes. "J.H. (John Houseman) says everything about theater is bull-shit." says Sonja (which she explains is spelled with a "j" but pronounced with a "y"). But the trick is getting the bull-shit to flow in one direction and that's towards the audience, so they can't see the gears in the background, and the compromises, and the cat-fights and ego-clashes and the spit flying in the klieg-lights. It's new and they've never seen it before, and like the magician he was, Welles was good at deflection while making you never want to blink.

And director
Linklater ("Dazed and Confused,""A Scanner Darkly") suddenly seems to understand that. Where before he was content to trace his way through movies, now he's using it as a weapon to win over the audience rather than merely please himself. The big joke at the beginning of the film is a seemingly endless number of production companies that "present" "Me and Orson Welles." Hell, the Isle of Man Film Commission is a producer and so is the special effects company that maintains the period illusions (they had me at the "Re-Elect Laguardia" bumper-sticker on the phone-booth), for like Welles, Linklater is trying to make his movie any way he can, and in one telling shot in the latter part of the movie, he shows how deep he knows his themes. He starts with a close-up of an orchestra singer, and she's nothing to look at. But as the camera moves back, back, back in the hall, soon all you hear is her voice and the spangling of her dress and at some point, it doesn't matter where—she's the most beautiful girl in the world and she can make you fall in love. It's a simple camera move, just a way-stop to what is important in the scene, but it speaks volumes about illusion and The Moment.

It's this trickery and the fascination with the curtain that distinguishes this little recreation of
Welles' prestidigitation from Tim Robbins' hyper-serious (and more than a little dull) "Cradle Will Rock." At times, it seems like Robbins was making a judgmental spoof rather than telling the story, which in its own way revelled in the incalculable effect of stirring theater.

And Linklater has a keen grasp of what makes Welles tick (not in his words, because "the official" Welles confounds biographers by telling different stories of his past), but by his actions. Welles had a fascination with the ephemeral, of the moment that could disappear in a flash and make you wonder if it was ever really there to begin with. Not wanting to be tied down, or set things in stone, he was finally confounded—not in the confused sense, but the frustrated sense—
with film and its opening dates and burned-in images and permanent records. Change it, compress it, speed it up, keep everybody on their toes—they might see something up there—that was the Welles credo. Keep it fresh, or, at least play it fresh. Everything is fleeting, nothing is permanent, so you better move fast and enjoy it, or move past and forget it. "Ripeness is all." In that way, "Me and Orson Welles" is in the same radar zone with "Up in the Air."

At a time when
James Cameron is recycling his old stuff as futuristic, and trumpeting it as revolutionary at the top of his ego, the most amazing thing in this movie season is how two boy-filmmakers, Guy Ritchie and Richard Linklater, grew up to make stellar, fun and deep entertainments out of the past. Like Quentin Tarantino, these film-makers always gave off an air of being too hip for the screening room, but like Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds," "Sherlock Holmes" and "Me and Orson Welles" are smart, tough entertainments that may only appeal to the loges, but the fact that, given the materials, these directors can rise so magnificently to the occasion is the most eye-opening of movie-going experiences.

For awhile now, I've been peppered with little alerts about this movie on Welles-groups on the Internet and taking them with a grain of salt. There've been other movies about those wild early years, even a couple of TV-movies about "
The Night That Panicked America," and "RKO 281" (about the making of "Citizen Kane") and they've been tepid exercises that oftentimes embellished the facts. But, I think Welles would have enjoyed this one, and even roared with laughter a couple of times. But he would have had one problem with it.

That billing

"Me and Orson Welles" is a Full-Price Ticket. See it before it goes away.

72 Years difference: the NYT Hirschfeld cartoon for "Julius Caesar"

The 2009 cartoon of "Me and Orson Welles" in The New Yorker.

* The story is fiction based on fact: Author Robert Kaplow saw a photograph of the "Julius Caesar" production of Welles with a young man playing a lute, and decided to write a story about that young man. Except for the fact that his story is fictional, the rest if fairly accurate. Odd. Usually goes the other way.

** That would be Joseph Cotton, Norman Lloyd (who, like Cotton, worked with Hitchcock-becoming Hitchcock's Supervising Producer on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and starring as Dr. Auschlander on "St. Elsewhere," George Coulouris (who had a long, storied career on stage and in Hollywood), and John Houseman, who produced for many years and then, late in life, became a character actor, first in "Seven Days in May," then became ubiquitous, first winning a Best Supporting Actor Award for his Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase." He EARNED it).

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