Click here to listen to the interview with Richard Linklater and Christian McKay (18:18).
At the center of ME AND ORSON WELLES is Christian McKay’s performance as Welles during his reign as the enfant terrible of New York in the late 1930s. He is not so much doing an impersonation of him as he is becoming him, channeling the larger-than-life personality so precisely that there is no trace of caricature, no inkling of calculation in the twinkle of eye, the bellowing of impatience, nor of the irresistible charm that, along with genius, catapulted Welles to early and immoderate fame, even before CITIZEN KANE.
In this delightful fiction, he arrives in the life of callow and starstruck Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) by chance. Richard, bored with his high-school career, frustrated by his hopelessly bourgeois family, and dreaming of becoming a celebrity, bumps into him outside the theater where Welles company, The Mercury Players, are in the seemingly endless process of putting on Shakespeares Julius Caesar. Welles needs a ukulele player. Richard tells him, without hesitation that Welles would be hard pressed to find one better. Of course he cant play the instrument, but he has a few days to master it, and thus make his stage debut crooning the Welles himself. Richard, though a neophyte, has already instinctively understood the first rule of show business. Lie.
Fueled by ego, genius, and pineapple juice, Welles is in the process of staging a modern-dress version of the play. Its destined to become the stuff of theatrical legend with his stark presentation and direct comment on the Fascism then rampant in Europe. As the film opens, its as messy as Welles private life, which involves a pregnant wife, a leading lady mistress, and assorted trysts. Where he finds the time for it all is impressive, and perhaps a side benefit of genius, what with a grueling schedule of radio appearances, using ambulances to get from one studio to another. The sense of entitlement, Welles is financing much of the production himself, is to be expected, as Richard witnesses how Welles tramples on everyone around him. Most are willing to be trampled. More or less. That would include Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a smart ambitious gal who volunteers her time to the Mercury Players in exchange for the contacts it will afford. It would also include John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) Welles’ much put-upon company manager, who squawks in fine stentorian tones over opening days not fulfilled, and Welles’ capricious rehearsal schedule. And it includes the company as a whole, who are charmed and browbeaten in turn by the great man who, in moment of unvarnished truth, proclaims that the only reason any of them has a job is because of him. No one contradicts him. One reason is that the rule, as explained by Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) to Richard, is that no one contradicts Orson. The other is that hes right, and everyone knows it, grudgingly or not.
McKay does nothing to diminish the size of the ego involved, nor does he do anything to mitigate the double-dealing, sexual and otherwise, in which Welles indulged with aplomb and without conscience. He is dazzling, presenting Welles as the difficult personality that he was and making him captivating. Not, however, in spite of it, but actually because of it. There is, thanks to McKays multi-layered performance, the sense of glee, not only in getting away with behaving badly, but also in the creative process that he is guiding, both of which tap within the viewer a sort of guilty envy.
McKays captivating performance finds the perfect setting in the behind the scenes look at at how show biz worked way back then, and probably does today, too. The co-star (Ben Chaplin) with the ego, but not the genius, who wilts under the pressure. The supporting player (Leo Bill), whose part is cut, then restored, the cut again in a round robin that also includes no stage direction of any use. Theres also the assorted bondings, bets about who is bedding whom, broken hearts, and high spirits. Richard Linklater has somehow captured the ineffable magic of bringing the word on the page to life on the stage.
ME AND ORSON WELLES revolves around the role of ego and comes down aggressively on the side of needing a large one in order to get anything accomplished. As unapologetic as Welles himself, and just as impossible to resist, its a love letter to show business, but one that, unlike Richard, at least at first, doesnt have stars in its eyes.