Me and Orson Welles
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Me and Orson Welles (DVD)
High-schooler Richard Samuels lucks into a role in a daring Broadway production of Julius Caesar. Cues, staging, rehearsals, romance, rivalries: he has a lot to learn. And the first thing to learn is never upstage Mercury Theatre’s genius director, 22-year-old Orson Welles. Zac Efron wins hearts and applause as Richard, the Me of this celebratory curtain call for when dreams – and the theater – were big. Christian McKay offers an uncanny Welles, the imposing, impetuous center of Richard’s exciting new universe. Claire Danes is the enterprising stage assistant drawn into both men’s lives. And Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, The School of Rock) directs with the vibrant spirit of those for whom all the world is a stage. Bravo!]]>
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While McKay's portrayal of Welles is uncanny, my advice is to skip the film entirely and proceed to the Special Features section to see the twelve-minute recreation of Welles's famous "Julius Caesar." Excepting the fact that the make-up is not redolent of the theatre of the time, the recreation is a marvel. What a thrilling production it must have been, with beautiful chiaroscuro and echoes of the fascism then menacing in Europe. One wishes the film's producers had used the fortune spent on the movie, with its ridiculous romance between the characters of Danes and Efron, and simply filmed a recreation of the entire, historic "Julius Caesar."
We see here what might have been, if Welles had returned to the theatre instead of continuing in the cinema following his early masterpieces, where so much of his energy was spent in questionable film and television work.
Like "A Midwinter's Tale" (not yet on DVD), "Stage Beauty" and, of course, "Shakespeare in Love," the film alternates between Shakespearean scenes and the the lives of the actors involved. We see frequent brief recreations of Welles' "Caesar"---and the DVD's "Special Features" provide even more.
Despite its arcane subject, the film is made highly accessible by being told from the point of view of a teenager almost accidentally recruited to play a very minor part in the staging. Zac Efron is perfectly cast here---not just for the very incidental singing and dancing required, but for his wide-eyed initial response to the new world he inhabits and his growing disillusion. He's back in the conflict between real life and stage life (not to mention school and after-school) that dominated the "High School Musical" films, but this time American cultural history is on the line. And Efron's ready for the step up.
No longer a guileless Juliet, Claire Danes skillfully embodies the mixture of sweetness and icy ambition that troubles Efron, and the supporting cast is adept at playing young stage actors who later developed into major screen personalities. Director Richard Linklater not only elicits uniformly vivid performances but presides over an enticing evocation of New York City in the 1930s. This film is very easy to love.
Anyone interested in more about Welles' "Caesar" should look in libraries and rare record marts for the Mercury Theater performance issued by Columbia Records (EL-52 on LP, two discs). In "Me and Orson Welles," Welles plays Brutus and George Coulouris is Antony. That casting is reversed on the recording.