Me and Orson Welles (2008)
Directed by Richard Linklater
Produced by Ann Carli, Richard Linklater, Marc Samuelson
Screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo, Vincent Palmo, Jr.
Based on the novel by Robert Caplet
Music by Michael J. McEvoy
Cinematography by Dick Pope
Amazon streaming rental (1:53)
“There’s one simple plan: I run the store.”
Orson Welles (Christian McKay) makes this proclamation rather late in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2008), but it surprises absolutely no one, least of all a young acting hopeful named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron). The story opens in 1937 when Welles was just 22, directing his Mercury Theatre Players in a modern anti-fascist Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. By contrast, Richard – just five years younger than Welles – struggles to pay attention during high school English. It doesn’t seem fair to Richard that someone just a few years his senior could’ve achieved so much so quickly. Yet it looks somewhat audacious for Richard – the “me” of the film’s title – to find himself mentioned before Welles. Richard certainly won’t be accused of a lack of confidence.
Me and Orson Welles is a fictitious story built around actual events and real people, but you don’t really need to know much about any of that – even Welles himself – to enjoy the film. You don’t have to know that Welles excelled at radio, theatre, and motion pictures, that his 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds was so successful he nearly panicked the nation, or that he directed what many consider the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane (1941) when he was only 25. All you really need to know about Welles is what McKay gives us onscreen: a man of intelligence, ego, and talent, a showman, shaman, craftsman, and magician. In short, a genius.
Even before the play has begun production, we see Welles holding court with the cast and crew standing outside the theatre. If we want to know how Welles has achieved this level of success at such a young age, just watch McKay (above) breathe life into the character. Welles’s word is law and everyone knows it, except Richard, who arrives on the scene hungry for theatrical glory. When Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill, above, third from L) asks for a drum roll, Richard supplies it. When Welles asks Richard if he can play a ukulele, the boy responds, “Sure.” Just like that, he’s hired. Like Welles, Richard is confident, daring, and for the most part, unafraid. He knows he has much to learn from Welles, but the sooner he starts, the better. And a little aggressiveness can’t hurt, can it?
A Mercury production assistant named Sonja (Claire Danes) quickly sums up Richard and reads him the Welles manifesto: “Listen, Orson’s very competitive, very self-centered, very brilliant. He’s read everything, he knows everything. And the rule with Orson is you don’t criticize him. Ever.” After just a few days, Richard observes not only Orson’s brilliance, but also his wrath and manipulation, sometimes feeling a few stings himself. Richard also recognizes the enormous chasm separating his knowledge and experience from that of Welles. Greatness in acting – and maybe even a relationship with Sonja – might just begin to materialize if Richard plays his cards right. Or is the deck stacked against him?
Welles provides constant reminders of his genius, episodes that seem as natural to him as breathing. On the way to an appearance in a radio play, Welles grabs Richard and insists he accompany him to the gig. (Welles is never without an audience, even during a cab ride.) As the downtown journey progresses, Welles pages through a copy of Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons, the first film project he would attempt after Citizen Kane, a film remembered both for Welles’s directorial brilliance and its butchery by studio executives. After reading a scene to Richard, Welles remarks, “Ambersons is about how everything gets taken away from you,” a statement that would apply to the rest of Welles’s professional and personal life, which Richard cannot at this point know (nor can Welles). At the live radio broadcast moments later, Welles ad libs his speaking part before a bewildered cast, pulling in several bits and pieces of Ambersons he’s just read for Richard, adding a moment of sublime beauty to what was no doubt just another routine radio script. Everyone is astonished, but Richard’s cab ride with Welles has allowed him to peer behind the curtain. He sees the wizard at work and recognizes – as if there were ever any doubt – that Welles is not only brilliant, but maybe even superhuman.
But remember the title of the film. This is Richard’s story, and perhaps more importantly, it is ours. We want Richard to succeed, we want him to get the girl, we want him to emerge from his small role in Caesar as a victorious conqueror, ready to tackle bigger, better parts. We know what happens to Welles: more than four decades of frustration and disappointment, failed and unfinished projects, loss of control over his films, self-caricature, but also moments of true greatness. We don’t know, however, what happens to Richard, and by association, we don’t know what might happen to us. Richard will certainly never achieve the ranks of an Orson Welles, but who can? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that he just might achieve the success of a Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), a Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), a John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), or a George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin)? Even if he doesn’t, does that mean his life was somehow incomplete? A failure?
There’s something in Me and Orson Welles that reminds us of why we yearn for lofty goals, reachable or not. Richard longs to connect both with an audience and with another person on an intimate level. Early in the film he meets an aspiring writer named Greta (Zoe Kazan), a kindred spirit who’s more tentative than Richard in moving her career forward. Richard seems to sense that Greta’s reluctance to take chances may hinder her progress and he chooses a different path. They will both learn lessons, albeit in different ways and probably with different levels of pain and frustration. No one approaches the arts (or life, for that matter) without making some hard decisions. Yet decisions have consequences and at nearly every point in our careers, we find immovable roadblocks. How you respond to those roadblocks often determines your level of success, or perhaps your level of acceptance over things you simply cannot change.
The world permits us few geniuses like Orson Welles. When you think about it, that’s probably a blessing. Who can live up to such promise and wield such talent without creating (intentionally or otherwise) a path of destruction? We can certainly strive for the level of a Welles, but very, very few of us will ever achieve it. Me and Orson Welles shows us the path Richard has chosen, but it also asks us to examine our own paths, to come to terms with our own levels of acceptance. Such actions may include some hard lessons. Ultimately you may watch the film wishing you were Orson Welles, but find yourself totally satisfied with being Richard Samuels. We may not run the store, but we can sure have a great time working in it.