Richard Linklater has enjoyed one of the most diverse careers of any director currently working today. Before Midnight has received acclaim as one of 2013’s best films, and he’s created other favorites like Dazed and Confused and Slacker. He’s known as an indie filmmaker, but Linklater has entered the mainstream sphere with family fare like School of Rock and Bad News Bears. His Austin location brings a different perspective to his work, and even the commercial movies don’t feel the same. Looking back at his career, there are several gems that don’t receive much chatter but rank among his best work. A prime example is the period piece Me and Orson Welles, which earned critical raves but received an extremely limited release. It’s worth discovering at home, particularly due to one remarkable performance. The 2008 film is unknown by many and isn’t the first choice that comes to mind when thinking of Linklater’s essential movies.
Me and Orson Welles – Directed by Richard Linklater; Starring Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, James Tupper, Eddie Marsan, and Kelly Reilly
Zac Efron stars as Richard Samuels, a high-school student who dreams of being an actor. He stumbles into a part in the legendary Mercury Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in 1937. This dramatic troupe is known as radio legends, but they also shined on stage. Their ambitious star is Orson Welles, played in a larger-than-life performance by Christian McKay. He’s a charming guy who’s working on a different level from most artists, but he’s also cruel and manipulative. Orson isn’t concerned with being “nice” and will do anything for his vision. His feelings will turn on a dime, and it’s wise to avoid his wrath. Richard draws the star’s eye and seems destined for great things, but working for Mercury is a minefield. He’s an innocent who doesn’t understand the game. A veteran actor like Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) knows how Orson ticks and can avoid the problems. It’s tougher for a teenager who’s following his heart and doesn’t see the realities of working with a single-minded genius.
McKay is largely unknown beyond theater circles, and he delivers a remarkable performance that dominates the screen. His personality is so big that it pushes the other actors to the edges of the frame. Efron lacks this screen charisma and seems overmatched next to McKay, but that works for their on-screen relationship. Richard is a novice with talent that pales in comparison to Orson, so he can’t really stand up to that giant presence. When he finally puts his foot down in the name of misguided love, the action looks weak because his opponent cares so little for the innocent actor. This is a life-changing event for Richard, but Orson is constantly shifting his allegiances and finding new best pals. His outburst against a crew member who complains about credit says it all. He is the Mercury Theater, and the others are just participants in his vision. McKay brilliantly shows the charm that draws people to Orson and the cruelty behind the upbeat façade. He’s moving up in the world and doesn’t have time for anyone who isn’t fully committed to following his exact plans.
The surprising reality in considering Richard’s plight is realizing that he’s only four years younger than his experienced director. The innocent romance with production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) is cute, but he’s merely a brief stop along the way. She enjoys spending time with Richard yet will drop him in a second to connect with David O. Selznick. This cynicism about the artistic universe is surprising when presented behind such a glossy veneer. The grand achievements of the Julius Caesar production are fun and inspiring, but this type of success will leave destruction in its aftermath. Orson’s approach is far too risky to make everyone happy, and this same bravery predicts his ultimate downfall. He essentially becomes Charles Foster Kane, and his rejection of Richard exemplifies the moves that pushed him towards a fall. McKay wisely doesn’t play him as a monster and shows his chaotic personality. Even when he steps back and apologizes, it’s only to serve his ultimate goal and is a hollow gesture. Richard wears his heart on his sleeve and falls in love with both Sonja and Orson (in a sense), and that approach is reckless in this cutthroat world.
Me and Orson Welles is bookended by meetings between Richard and Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), who shares his idealistic views on the arts. They have several “meet cute” moments and seem destined to be together, yet the story keeps her in the background. Gretta is an interesting counterpoint to Sonja, who’s more confident yet lacks heart. She’s also younger and could grow into a less-savory character once exposed more to real life. Her days are spent in a museum drawing inspiration for her stories, and this ethereal style is much different than the life of the Mercury Theater players. The ending is technically “happy”, yet there’s a sense that Richard’s lost a grand opportunity. Orson has a messy and difficult personality, but his accomplishments are legendary. A whole new world exists for a confident Richard, and the experience has made him stronger. Even so, some regret may creep in when he realizes that his golden opportunity has vanished. Linklater shows the challenges for this idealist and reminds us that it takes a lot more than talent to become a legend.