Film Introduction: Me and Orson Welles (2009)
Totally random bit of desk-clearing, but here’s a film intro I wrote for Derby QUAD back in January. Truth be told, I’ve not been able to look at the damn thing since then because I never actually got to deliver the talk. It was most folks’ first Monday back after Christmas, in the middle of a violent snow storm, and nobody came except my mum. So we ended up having a private screening!
In the words of Morrissey, “I can laugh about it now but at the time it was terrible.” So here it is: TheTalk That Never Happened.
Me and Orson Welles
According to the Internet Movie Database, since 1975 there have been 21 different films or TV shows which have featured Orson Welles as a fictional character. On the one hand, it’s easy to see why Welles continues to attract the attention of fellow filmmakers. After all, he’s one of the Twentieth Century’s most iconic cultural figures: an outstanding actor, a director who revolutionised three different media, and a larger-than-life raconteur whose many adventures, on-screen and off-, provide extraordinarily rich material to work from. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think that anybody would even try to make a film about Welles – he seems too big, in every sense, to be manageable, a subject too immense for the movies.
That conundrum is easily explained if you consider the sheer number of those credits. Revealingly, nobody has yet attempted a comprehensive, definitive account of Welles’ life. Instead, what we get is a mosaic. Welles’ career was so wild and varied that each of these projects has been able to zero in on specific episodes from his life, or different aspects of his character, with remarkably little overlap.
In Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Welles is the patron saint of Hollywood mavericks, dispensing wisdom over the phone to Johnny Depp’s eager-but-rubbish director. In RKO 281, the TV movie about the making of Citizen Kane, Welles is the hotshot prodigy whose ego and ambition rub up Hollywood’s vested interests the wrong way. In Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Welles is the terrifying bogeyman Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey use to goad each other into a psychopathic friendship. And in Tim Robbins’ backstage drama, Cradle Will Rock, he’s the Broadway legend changing theatre forever with his innovative ideas.
Tonight’s film, Me and Orson Welles, also covers the Broadway period – but don’t think for a moment that this means today’s directors have run out of things to say. Such was Welles’ development during those fast, furious years at the tail-end of the 1930s when he made his name, that there’s more than one story to tell, and Me and Orson Welles might well be telling the most important.
The facts are these – insofar as facts can be confirmed when so many have “printed the legend” when documenting Welles’ life. Aged 16, he spent his inheritance on a trip to Europe, hoping to become a famous artist. Instead, he ended up penniless in Dublin, and bluffed his way into the Gate Theatre by claiming to be a great actor. By the time he returned to New York, he was a great actor and, as news of his precocious talent quickly spread, by 1937, he had kudos enough to start his own company, the Mercury Theatre.
To anybody interested in cinema, let alone the stage, the Mercury remains endlessly fascinating, the source of much of Welles’ legacy. During the next few years, Welles would perfect his artistic style, assemble his trusted repertoire of actors and unleash the ambition that would take him to Hollywood and to Citizen Kane. The sheer speed of Welles’ life means that there’s no time to tell that story tonight, but the Quad is showing Kane in February and I’ll be giving a talk on that film, then [EDIT: Said talk is available here]. The early days of Mercury are in themselves just as compelling. Me and Orson Welles charts the very beginning of the company: the Mercury’s first production, a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar, starring Welles as Brutus, that dares to break with tradition by updating the action to Fascist Italy.
But, as the title of tonight’s film suggests, this isn’t a straight character study of Welles – instead, our view is filtered through the perspective of “Me,” aka Richard Samuels, a teenage actor hoping for his big break, and indulged by Welles because – well, maybe he sees a little of himself in the new boy. So the film captures Welles, at the age of only 22, already an icon, a mentor and an inspiration. On a wider level, this is part of a subgenre of films where great figures are observed through their interaction with an Everyman, seen in the likes of Gods and Monsters, or My Favourite Year.
But with Welles, there’s yet another level, the sense that the “Me” refers also to the director of the film we’re watching. As the list of directors I mentioned earlier suggests, some big names have used Welles as a character, but Richard Linklater, the man behind Me and Orson Welles, might be the most intriguing choice yet. Linklater would be the first to deny any correlation between himself and Welles: he’s an unassuming Texan with a low-profile, quietly pursuing a modest career without ever becoming a household name. Quite the opposite from the rollercoaster of Welles’ celebrity and his neverending courting of disaster.
Nonetheless, there are fascinating parallels. Both achieved cinematic landmarks at an early age: Welles with Citizen Kane; Linklater with Slacker, one of the defining films of the Nineties’ indie generation. Both have had a fraught relationship with Hollywood, Linklater fighting the studios to get his way on Dazed and Confused but also able to achieve hit movies within the system – notably kids’ comedy The School of Rock. But, like Welles, he’s found his true voice in the leftfield: travelling, experimenting, pushing himself. Slacker – a plotless assembly of characters walking and talking, shot on-the-hoof over many years using non-professional actors – is the kind of film you could imagine Welles making in his later life. The last few years alone have seen Linklater move from mainstream comedy The Bad News Bears, to a politicised adaptation of veggie bible Fast Food Nation, to surreal animated sci-fi A Scanner Darkly. It’s impossible to predict what he’ll do next, a very Wellesian quality.
So it’s tantalising to think how a director as versatile and innovative as Linklater might tackle the great man himself. The irony is that Linklater has ignored the more unusual flourishes on his CV to make a thoroughly conventional, old-school backstage comedy – which, arguably, is just as much of an iconoclastic thing to do. That said, Me and Orson Welles seems to revel in a sense of playfulness that’s very Welles. It’s a New York movie shot on the Isle of Man (an irony the globe-trotting Welles, who made his films wherever he could get the money, might have appreciated ). And at its heart, there’s the brilliant irony of casting a mega-star as “Me” and an unknown as “Welles.”
Linklater is renowned for bringing out the best in actors: he discovered Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey, turned Jack Black into a star, and has a very fruitful ongoing creative partnership with one-time child star Ethan Hawke. Here, it’s the turn of Zac Efron – the heartthrob star of High School Musical – to prove he’s more than just a pretty-boy hoofer by carrying a lead role without any singing or dancing. But the other thing Linklater is known for is trusting his instincts by casting unknowns, and for Welles he has opted for depth of feeling rather than stardom. He was alerted to British actor Christian McKay, after he had wowed with one-man stage show “Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles.” By common critical consent, McKay’s resulting work in tonight’s film is the best of those 21 on-screen Welles performances, and apparently one that very nearly matches up to the man himself.
Does the arrival of McKay offer the prospect, finally, that we have the man for that elusive Welles biopic? Considering Linklater’s involvement here, there’s another, more fascinating possibility. In 1995, Linklater directed romantic drama Before Sunrise; in 2004, he reunited the actors for real-time sequel Before Sunset, a chance to see how their characters had evolved during the nine-year gap. Meanwhile, Linklater has another, ongoing project, which has been filming annually now for 12 years, that charts the changing development of an entire family. Now that Linklater has found the ideal actor for Welles, wouldn’t it be wonderful if he and McKay collaborated again, on and off, every few years. Cinema might not get a single, definitive Orson Welles movie, but there are plenty more pieces of the mosaic left to film.