You Have to See… is a regular feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
With the Australian release of Boyhood last week, even more people now regard director Richard Linklater as the reigning king of the coming-of-age film. This isn’t unprecedented, since many of his previous films chart growth in young adult characters, leaving behind what they know in what he has described as “that necessary period where you separate yourself from everything you knew before you define yourself as an adult.”1 Films like Dazed and Confused, Slacker, and Waking Life carry the same strengths as Boyhood, eschewing typical cinema-narrative forms and searching for truth in more inexplicable and mundane moments. One of his more recent films does the same but is easy to look past next to its more fashionable contemporaries; indeed, people overlooked it right into flop status upon its release in 2009, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a ranking of Linklater’s filmography on the net where it cracks the top half. But that story, 2008’s Me and Orson Welles, demands reassessment, because it carries arguably the most accessible and entertaining iteration of the coming-of-age form in Linklater’s career, not to mention the most well-known name to adorn its billing.
Like any great performance, the film saves the reveal of its main attraction. We start instead by meeting our ‘Me’: 17 year-old Richard Samuels, played by Zac Efron. He leaves a stuffy high school classroom to go wandering through the bustle of pre-WWII New York City, tossing peanuts into his mouth and fingering his Gielgud text, eyes clearly fixed on the acting stars of show business. He eventually finds a group of actors rabble-rousing outside the Mercury Theatre, and makes a successful impromptu audition for their rapidly-impending production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s a dream come true at first, but soon becomes as unglamorous as any first job in the arts. The theatre’s manager, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), has him answering the phone and helping her glue posters up all over town, making it resoundingly clear that it’s experience and exposure he’s being paid in, nothing else. Rehearsal time is spent less on stage and more gossiping in the cheap seats with the other actors. When they do get on stage, countless things go wrong: trap doors nearly kill the performers, egos run rampant for everyone else, and the opening date hasn’t even been pinned down. At least Richard’s role isn’t as insignificant, requiring not only that he perform a serenade on ukelele, but do so opposite the play’s intimidating director; an abrasive and arrogant man with an unquestionable vision. That man, of course, is Orson Welles.
How so? Welles, of course, passed away in 1985, with one of the richest bodies of creative work ever seen from an artist left in his wake. The Welles we meet here is not one that film fans have met, not just because he is played here by newcomer Christian McKay, but because it is him in 1937, well before his numerous Hollywood travails, which include his production of the perpetual metonym of cinema snobbery that is the actually-genuinely-great Citizen Kane.2 Even as he ballooned into a mournful shadow of his former self and weathered one non-starter project after another, he sustained a unique disposition that both received the subject warmly and subtly spurned it. He could play both welcoming host and wiseacre supreme in barely an eyebrow twitch. This return back to his stridently independent heyday in the theatre might be what magnetised the project for Linklater, who was experiencing his own slump in the mid-2000s with the lukewarm reception of Fast Food Nation and A Scanner Darkly; a sad thought considering that Me and Orson Welles would continue that trend and tank at the box office in a producer-founded distribution deal.3 All of these directorial struggles are erased by the sheer pleasure of watching McKay, who miraculously makes both for an unmistakeable, uncanny Welles and for a wonderfully flexible screen presence of his own, unencumbered by any contrived audiovisual cues to the films he made later in life. He may be a decade older than the 22-year-old he’s supposed to be playing, but his is a quintessential Orson, not a strictly period-matching one,4 and he exudes a staggering range of temperament in that adopted skin. He’s contemplative, short-tempered, uplifting, and a damn mean son-of-a-bitch. It’s simply one of the greatest biographical film performances ever seen.
And for all that, he is still kept at arms distance, in terms of character development. This is Richard’s journey that we embark on, and we have the author of the film’s source novel to thank for that. Robert Kaplow, a writer and English teacher of New Jersey, describes finding a photo of Welles onstage as Brutus, and having his eyes drawn to the lucky young Lucius strumming a lute next to him.5 His speculation on the boy’s thoughts became an original story told from an older teenage character’s perspective, and in that book of the same name he deftly wields the yearnings and frustrations of a creative adolescent, not to mention period mannerisms and detail. What’s not so pleasing is his attempts to inject hormonal lusting into the proceedings, and goes overboard very fast. Kaplow is so determined to bottle Richard’s sexual frustrations into the story that he creates a walking manifestation of the deservedly-loathed Nice Guy stereotype; somebody who has perfectly kind female friends but selfishly and indiscriminately feels entitled to sex from them. When he’s bored senseless and amusing himself with the other cast members, it’s somewhat understandable for him to be coarse like this. When he’s making a move to create that perfect imagined life for himself, however, his deserved failure is framed by Kaplow instead as a stirring climax that avoids those issues, falsifying his hero’s maturation through pat sentiment and self-delusion.
You would think, if watching the film’s trailer beforehand,6 that all these toxic elements had remained, and been wrapped in a nauseating Lasse Hallström-esque bow, with emotional cueing and crescendo piled on like crazy. Thankfully, the film’s writer/producers, Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo jr, manage to take only the best of that story and then leave it to Linklater’s wry interpretation. Scenes outside the Mercury Theatre are kept to a beneficial minimum, and much of the dialogue is translated verbatim to create overall superior scenes, save for an admittedly flat line or two. Most relieving of all is their decision to leave in the recurring exchanges with Gretta, a character who would be primed for the chopping block in lesser hands, but has huge significance for the film’s thematic throughline. She’s played by Zoe Kazan, and is not only charming but possessing the self-effacement and insecurity of somebody intimidatingly perceptive; a softer mirror of Orson, perhaps. While the book eventually sacrificed her to Richard’s mitigating worldview, the film maintains her importance in his journey but smartly holds back on their potential romance, never opting for an easy crowd-pleaser.
So where the hell is Zac Efron in all of this? People flipped for him this year with Bad Neighbours, because of how he turned his High School Musical pretty-boy status into comedic gold, but as I watched that movie, I knew he had pulled a similar but greater trick before, right here. He starts out very much as you’d expect, flashing his smile and playing the all-purpose hero boy, but then the cracks start to form. Welles chews him out for flubbing in rehearsals, and each time this happens Linklater leaves the camera running, watching him idle like a lost child as more capable hands flurry around him in a scene transition. His rehearsed wit in early scenes start falling by the wayside when he gets to know Sonja, a woman who defies all the men’s expectations by shrewdly entrenching herself in the creative world. Danes plays her with sparkling humour and playfulness, but underscores it with a defiant lack of patience that Efron intentionally crumbles under. And of course McKay has his jabs too, flitting between warmth and wickedness as both a father-mentor figure and a bullying senior. They and the film conspire in a grand joke to bring Richard to a more sensible place, and Efron is way into it, laying into his lip-quivering wake-up call and then emerging with more genuine wisdom lining his face than in the last dozen pages of Kaplow’s screed.
In great Linklater fashion, the film demonstrates a similarly restrained and critical eye on the film’s other, smaller, but no less crucial events. I haven’t even brought up the supporting cast yet, and they foster such a quirky sense of camaraderie that they deserve airtime. I have to give special note to the dark horse that is Ben Chaplin, who plays real-life cast member George Colouris with delightful disdain, and is even afforded a small character arc of his own amidst the chaos of opening night in another smart change from the book. Linklater has carefully-spent time for several others, from Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) discussing the concept of “quadruple spaces” to John Houseman (Eddie Marsan!) conveying the exquisite ambivalence of having to collaborate with a man like Orson. These and more make for an evocative representation of the theatre world, but also imbue the film with a feeling of assured purpose as the troupe work towards their debut. Fittingly, the camera is guided with purposeful momentum through the stunning locations by DOP Dick Pope, a frequent Mike Leigh collaborator. He and production designer Laurence Dorman turn the Isle of Man’s Gaiety Theatre into the Mercury, which is a space by turns welcoming and isolating as Richard’s story progresses. Those crew members especially let rip with the re-enactment of Caesar, gliding across the stage and drinking in the contemporary detail like Welles’ audience wish they could.7 Also typical of Linklater is a soundtrack that cherry-picks period tunes, here made to fit the music that is always humming inside Richard’s head and add to the movie’s vintage textures, with some original music by Michael J. McEvoy in more serious moments.
And speaking of serious moments… the ending. Boy howdy. Put it this way: remember how School of Rock ends in such a wilfully optimistic way, where the kids’ parents conveniently forget that an amoral identity thief has held their kids hostage for the school term? That was Linklater deliberately swerving away from reality, to make the film a triumphant ballad and have kids air-guitaring in the cinema to ACDC. Orson is not so obliging. We hit the feel-good moment, but then we keep going, and the aftermath makes itself sorely known. It’s not humourless, but it’s almost cruel in its permeation of failure and disappointment, and acts a bolt of realism into a dream that has cloudied fact and fiction. It makes the film much more compelling for young creatives like Richard, afraid that they may not deliver on the possibilities they dream up for themselves. This, in tandem with the film’s numerous nods to other art forms, means that any budding artist should find something to like before the film’s ambiguous final shot fades out.
It’s only fitting for its cunning director, a man who started making movies as a way to find purpose in his early adulthood. Many of his films drip with dualling sympathy and sardonicism for those in that life stage, and in Me and Orson Welles, that trend continues unabated. The film rises well above any kind of lazy tribute to the titular screen legend, seducing with its snappy script and impressive leads, then rewarding repeat viewings with its stylistic and thematic detail. It is a warmly glowing tale of youthful energy and ego, delighting in quirks but not sparing us anxieties and disappointments, thus becoming a kind of bitter-sweet comfort food and easily one of Linklater’s best achievements.
Brad Mariano – I wasn’t sure what my response would be, being a lover of all things relating to Orson Welles, whether of the academic or mere gossip variety. On the other hand, I don’t really enjoy Linklater’s films. I suppose both of these things reflect my eventual response then – enough can’t be said about McKay’s performance, and I like that the film never gets close to hero-worship of Welles, which is a very easy temptation considering Welles’ ebullient demeanour and limitless talent; in fact, he comes across as monstrous here. The film might even go a little too far in the other direction – suggesting there’s almost no redeeming qualities on a personal level. But this fits in with the outsider’s perspective we get from the narrative framing, and McKay is so effective that his presence if felt even in his character’s absence, when they are all “waiting for Orson”.
The historical detail is mostly good, and as Dominic notes, it’s interesting that it’s a pre-cinema Mercury Theatre tale – though there were some obvious Welles trivia thrown in for no reason, the references to The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight felt very shoehorned in to presumably please fans who picked up on them. Also, the characterisation of Joseph Cotten was pretty weird and unlike Welles, the voice was off (though the resemblance was uncanny, before the character was introduced I recognised him as a blurry figure in the background because of how perfectly Cotten’s curly hair was replicated). But for film geeks this was pretty fun viewing. I just wished I responded to the main story on its own terms more. I don’t care a lot for coming-of-age dramas (which I suppose illustrates my indifference to Linklater more generally) and while Efron handled the dramatic scenes fine I don’t think he was a great fit here. It’s enjoyable, Claire Danes was great but it didn’t go much out of the ordinary for me, and didn’t engage in the same way as the Mercury scenes. It’s a solid film, but the film unintentionally describes the viewing experience – for a lot of the film we’re “waiting for Orson”.
Jess Ellicott – I disagree with the basic premise of this essay in that I do not think you have to see Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles. (Besides the obvious fact that you probably don’t actually have to see anything we recommend in this column unless someone is forcing you, Clockwork Orange-style.) I say that as someone who respects the work of both Welles and Linklater, in my opinion this film does neither director any favours. Welles is unkindly caricatured, as Brad mentioned above, coming across as a monstrous egomaniac, whose favourite hobby, it seems, is to fire anyone who so much as looks at him the wrong way in a ludicrous “Off with their heads!” fashion. Attempting to emulate Welles is an exercise in futility, no-one could be a better Welles than Welles himself. Why not watch The Lady from Shanghai, The Trial or the criminally under-seen F for Fake instead if you want a document of Welles’ brilliance? It is a problem I often have with most films featuring prominent contemporary figures who still live on vividly in our collective cultural memory. Emulating them normally proves an unnecessary and uninteresting venture, forming the cinematic equivalent of a inferior cover version of a much-loved song.
Linklater is more successful in the laid-back, pop-culture literate walking-and-talking register of Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Boyhood than in the more self-serious world of High Culture and the theatre in Me and Orson Welles. (That said, I did enjoy the flash of Linklater the cinephile in the Richard and Gretta’s Bande à part-inspired mad dash through the Metropolitan Museum.) There’s one exchange in the film between Richard and Gretta where Linklater makes playful reference to his own filmmaking practice. When Richard asks Gretta what happens in the short story she’s hoping to get published in the New Yorker, she replies “What do you mean, ‘What happens?’ Nothing happens. Does something have to happen? No, the whole story is, this girl goes to the museum, feeling blue, and she thinks about time and eternity, and then she feels a little better. There’s no action in it, if that’s what you’re looking for. Why does everything have to have a plot? All that melodramatic garbage.” Maybe there’s just a bit too much of that melodramatic garbage going on here, too.
Conor Bateman – I’m a fairly big Linklater fan but Me and Orson Welles was one of my blind spots in his filmography. It seemed to have flopped theatrically (and to some extent critically), it starred Zac Efron as a high school student prone to performing on a stage and it looked so out of step with the style of films he had been making for decades. On watching it, though, I am pleasantly surprised. The film starts off clumsily, a scene in a music shop where Richard (Efron) meets Gretta (Zoe Kazan) features stilted dialogue and an uncomfortably obvious telegraphing of a romantic subplot (though it would turn out to be more of a structural hallmark). The hammed up nature of the film doesn’t end even when Orson Welles (Christian McKay) comes into the picture, the recruitment of Richard into the Mercury Theatre feels phoned in. However, beyond this point, the film starts to come alive. It’s less a traditional coming of age film, or rather it’s less interesting as that (though the romantic angle with the older Claire Danes character was surprisingly affecting) – Me and Orson Welles succeeds in taking us behind the scenes of theatre and of a set time period in American artistic history. Richard being whisked away to watch Welles perform a radioplay, the actual staging and turmoil of rehearsals, the brilliance of the actual production – these elements allow the film to rise above a mere nostalgia trip.
I think that Dom, in his essay, perhaps lauds the film a little too much – it’s better than I had expected but it’s not close to Linklater’s top five. My main quibble would be with throwing the film up as Linklater’s most accessible coming-of-age narrative, because both Boyhood and Dazed exist, and also there’s a certain level of engagement that only comes with an above average knowledge of Welles’ history. I’d agree with what Brad says about shoehorning in references; especially in the first half-hour of the film there was too much winking to the camera and also a decent amount of unnecessary explanation (e.g. we need to be told about Gone With The Wind prior to the production of the film), though I’m not entirely sure all of those references were to please fans – there’s definitely an argument to be made in the open construction of Welles in the film as self-referential caricature. Jess I disagree with completely here – comparing McKay’s performance to an inferior cover song is willfully ignorant engagement with the film – Linklater isn’t just providing a showcase of Welles’ brilliance, he is playing with perspective in storytelling, we see Welles as Richard does, an overly enigmatic and frustrating figure. Also the notion that Linklater should step away from ‘High Culture’ is, for one, condescending, and secondly actively ignores his bold stylistic decisions when approaching the recreation of Welles’ production of Caesar. The montage of scenes that we see feels almost alien coming from a filmmaker like Linklater, but it is an impressive and exciting sequence nonetheless. What I will say to claims that this isn’t a film one ‘has to see’ is that I think, when viewed in the context of Linklater’s filmography, this is something of a misnomer and, as such, is underseen and relatively underappreciated. I think it shows some interesting stylistic decisions not made in any of his other films and features a thoroughly impressive performance from Christian McKay.
Jeremy Elphick – I’ve developed a very complicated relationship with Richard Linklater in the last few years. I loved the Before trilogy, Slacker, don’t mind Waking Life, am a bit a rogue defender of a Scanner Darkly and I thought Boyhood was pleasant. I don’t think any of his films have left me speechless or really altered my view of things that much. That said, I definitely respect a great deal of his body of work and understand the reasons a lot of it is as lauded as it is. That said, I feel I’m definitely on board a lot with what Jess is saying here – I really don’t think anyone has to see Me and Orson Welles. More so, I’m more on board with her recommendation that there should probably be more of an imperative to explore Orson Welles beyond Citizen Kane rather than the depths of Linklater. I don’t think that this is a bad film by any measure, I don’t think Linklater should step away from “High Culture” either – I don’t think many people should, though. That said, the overall work feels tonally inconsistent with itself. It feels like a compromise, and as a result, it doesn’t feel like a holistic vision of the director. I don’t think Zac Efron – coming out of High School Musical, 17 Again and Hairspray – had any place in the film and it felt like he was there – as many hypothesised – because he was a bit of a “star” at the time it was being made. He feels inauthentic and existing so proximally close to the centre of the film makes the film itself feel a bit inauthentic. Besides this, I enjoyed the movie and I think Linklater definitely does some fascinating things. I think Linklater has made a good movie in Me and Orson Welles, and I’m sure he might be playing with perspective in storytelling in the film. That said, I don’t think that qualifies it as anything more than a good movie and an interesting movie that uses some intriguing filmic and narrative techniques that result in some insights into film, Welles and Linklater as a filmmaker. To re-iterate though, I don’t think you have to see this film, and would likely recommend at least 500 other movies over it.
Georgina Wills – Sadly, I was one of those people that overlooked Me and Orson Welles because of its flop status in 2009. Possessing all the themes of a Linklater film, Me and Orson Welles stands as one of his best and most unconventional films given its accessible standardised narrative and exquisite period setting. Dom alerted me that the cinematography was by Dick Pope, and given his involvement with Mike Leigh, it really is no surprise this film looked as beautiful as it did. I found the cinematography incredibly striking and especially important in conveying how Zac Efron’s character Richard transitions over the film.
Dick Pope’s aesthetic is certainly similar to a conventional kind of musical, heavily saturated with a contrived setting to really draw on the overall theatrical elements it surrounds. The film feels incredibly warm, assisted by rich primary colours in light outdoor scenes and sequences with Gretta (Kazan). These moments form as strong contrasts when we’re not inside the Mercury Theatre. Scenes predominantly shot in the Mercury posses a dank, more sinister colouring and definitely become more isolating for Richard’s character as noted by Dom. Going between these settings effectively captures Richard’s initial idealistic views on becoming an actor and how they gradually become more realistic throughout the film. Gretta’s presence in a gorgeous sub plot with Richard is also significant in indicating the importance of youthful creative ambition regardless of how ruthless the arts industry is.
Another nice comparative point can also be made surrounding the relationship between Richard and Sonja (Danes). The initial romantic and opportunistic moments between these two are wonderful. Both of their characters are incredibly charming yet both become tainted and subject to moral confliction to get ahead in the creative world. Alternatively, Gretta alleviates this notion, instead offering something very affirming about their futures in the industry. Given Dom’s point on Linklater never offering happy resolutions, this forms as a nice but ambiguous way to end the film.