By Don Simpson | November 24, 2009
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer(s): Robert Kaplow (novel), Holly Gent Palmo, Vincent Palmo Jr. (screenplay)
Starring: Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin
November 1937 – Orson Welles, producer John Houseman and their theater company at the Mercury Theatre began working on their much fabled production of Julius Caesar (the first Shakespearian play to be presented on Broadway). The Mercury Theatre was founded by Welles and Houseman earlier in the same year after the duo resigned from the Federal Theatre. In 1938, the Mercury Theatre evolved into The Mercury Theatre on the Air – a radio series that included the most infamous and influential radio broadcasts of all time: The War of the Worlds (broadcast on October 30, 1938). Welles and Houseman then moved to Hollywood and made Citizen Kane.
Director Richard Linklater shows us a fictionalized perspective of the Welles (Christian McKay) and Houseman (Eddie Marsan) 1937 production of Julius Caesar. We are introduced to an ever so dreamy seventeen-year-old Richard Samuels (Zak Efron). Richard stumbles upon the Mercury Theatre troupe as they impatiently await for Orson’s arrival. The role of Lucillus is available – when Orson arrives he almost instantly casts Richard as Lucillus.
With only a few high school plays under his belt, Richard enters Orson’s theatrical world of the Mercury. This is where he meets the ice queen, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) – whom Richard finds to be quite warm and receptive. Orson, too, seems to be overly nice and accommodating to Richard. It is as if Richard’s stunningly pristine looks have zombified everyone around him.
Unfortunately, Richard’s good looks are not able to save his career at the Mercury. Richard finds himself on Orson’s bad side and promptly blacklisted from Broadway altogether. Luckily for Richard, his heart wasn’t set on Broadway – he is a jack of all trades, a renaissance man if you will – and we know Richard will succeed in whatever he decides to do with those good looks of his.
Unfortunately for Linklater, Efron is in way over his head in this production – especially when cast opposite of the brilliant McKay (who literally transcends into Welles). Efron’s performance is utterly superficial, with absolutely no emotional depth. Even when Efron’s Richard is on stage as Lucillus, his performance is flat – how Richard did not get fired on day one by the totalitarian Welles is a complete mystery. Heck, how he remained in the final cut of Me and Orson Welles is also a mystery to me!
Sonja, as portrayed by Danes, is inconsistent (is she an ice queen or not?) and not nearly as drop dead gorgeous as everyone purports her to be. But as I already mentioned, McKay is Welles. He looks like him, he sounds like him, he acts like him – he is him. McKay’s performance is awe-inspiring. Some of the supporting actors of the Mercury troupe are great as well, most notably: Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd and Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris.
Other than McKay’s performance, the most intriguing aspect of Linklater’s film (which was adapted from Robert Kaplow’s novel) is the actual production of Welles’ Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, we have to wait until the waning minutes of the film to witness the infamous spectacle.
One of the reasons Welles’ adaptation was so revered by some and hated by others was the modern attire worn by the characters. Welles dressed his protagonists in uniforms reminiscent of the Fascists of Italy and the Nazis of Germany (similar to Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film adaptation of Richard III) – he also portrayed a direct analogy between Caesar and Benito Mussolini. The story was mercilessly stripped-down by Welles (clocking in around 100 minutes without an intermission) – several characters were eliminated, dialogue was shuffled around and stolen from other sources, and the final two acts were reduced to a single scene. On November 22, 1937 Time Magazine published a review of Welles’ Julius Caesar noting its stunning visual achievements: “the giant backwall shadow of Antony, speaking over Caesar’s body; a cross-hatching of light and shadow high up in the loft, unintentionally giving the impression of crossed fasces: the climax, patterned after LIFE‘s pictures of last summer’s Nazi Congress at Nürnberg, vertical shafts of light stabbing up through the darkness as background for the eulogy to the noblest Roman of them all.”
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Linklater is at his best when dealing with more organic (less Hollywood) material. His greatest strengths are obviously in his dense philosophical dialogue and the natural performances that he inspires. (Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Waking Life are all Linklater at his most Linklaterian.) I understand why a film featuring a pre-Citizen Kane Welles would be appealing to Linklater (as well as most other filmmakers). But Linklater’s style and overall strengths are in no way conducive to a 1937 period piece. Me and Orson Welles deserved to be treated in a much more grandiose fashion, by a director who is willing to emulate Welles in their production. What’s a film about Welles without all of the Wellesian flourishes?