When I tell you the feel-good, comedic, coming of age flick for the holiday season takes place in New York during the 1930s you might incredulously think, “Yeah, right.” So brace yourself for this next revelation — it also involves William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” as envisioned by iconic American actor, Orson Welles.
It’s 1937 and for aspiring actors the Mercury Theatre is the place to be. In “Me and Orson Welles,” Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a plucky actor with chutzpah who ingratiates himself into the world surrounding legendary actor Orson Welles (brilliantly played by newcomer Christian McCay) as he prepares his version of “Julius Caesar,” billed as “Caesar: Death of a Dictator.”
Efron is spectacular and charming. His blue eyes sparkle with unbridled idealism as he delves deeper than we’ve seen in any “High School Musical.” We’ve all been this character at one point or another in our lives so you can’t help but root for him. When he wins the role of “Lucius” he inquires as to what became of the actor whom he’s replacing. Another cast member gently warns, “He had a personality problem with Orson — meaning he had a personality.” And so begins the protagonist’s inherent struggle: will he simply “go along and get along” to get what he wants or will he stand up for the ideals in which he believes? The film’s denouement answers this question — which I’m not going to give away.
Welles, however is quite the character; he grandstands, is both mercurial and brilliant while manipulating his cast and crew, has affairs with most of his leading ladies, and keeps an ambulance waiting outside so that he may travel uptown whilst avoiding the crunch of traffic. Samuels, like those around him, is clearly under the spell of the larger-than-life Welles.
A scene at a radio station demonstrates the breadth of Welles’ talent, which far exceeds those of his fellow thespians. During a ride uptown, (in his ambulance, of course) he reads to Samuels text he has memorized from Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Once at the radio station, he invites Samuels to watch and see “how it’s done.” As the live show begins, Welles veers off script, seamlessly injecting his rehearsed “Ambersons” dialogue. The radio show’s producer, who clearly has no idea what’s going on, lauds Welles for his extemporaneous take. We know the “extemporaneous” improvisation is the result of Welles’ calculating genius.
The film, which addresses many of the myths surrounding the iconic Welles, is largely fictionalized from Robert Kaplow’s eponymous novel. For Linklater, “the biggest piece of the puzzle was finding the right guy to play Orson.” A few months after optioning the project, Kaplow sent Linklater an e-mail, letting him know there was, “a guy performing a play in New York at this 50-seat theatre … called ‘Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.’” Linklater flew to New York and knew he had found the perfect actor to portray Welles on screen. Also of note are Claire Danes as the ambitious Girl Friday, Sonja Jones and James Tupper who captures perfectly the role of Joseph Cotton.
Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” has an exuberance about it; an idealistic energy — enhanced by the pace of Manhattan, circa 1937. Writers Vince Palmo, Jr. (a former Santa Monica resident) and his wife, Holly Gent Palmo have constructed a real quality film. It’s not simply a great film, but a great film with a heart.