Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Portrait of Welles as a Young Man: Linklater's Me & Orson Welles (2009)

There is a sense in which the words Orson Welles refer as much to a myth as to a man. Next year will mark the 95th anniversary of his birth and the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, and in that time his legend has only grown. If Welles has become a character, well, he was always kind of a character to begin with. The child prodigy, the wunderkind, the showboat, the controversy, the director of the Greatest Movie Of All Time, the world's youngest has been, the expat, the artist, the fat joke, the overrated, the underappreciated...Orson Welles.

We'll never know how much of it is true, I fear. Simon Callow is working on the third volume of his Welles biography, but he won't be the last one to attempt to dig through the rough materials of the man's life looking for the man. There are too many legends swirling about--and Welles himself was a joyful spinner of tales--and he provoked too many responses from too many different people. Some people loved him (John Berry, Marlene Dietrich) and many people hated him (John Houseman, Norman Lloyd). Even more vexing, the responses to his life's work are too varied.

There are many, many people who cling to the notion that Welles was a shooting star who burned out the day he wrapped up shooting on
Citizen Kane. They take a certain glee from recounting the long fall of Welles, the man of irresponsible talent brought low by the excesses of his own personality. He's viewed like Elvis. He was young and talented and beautiful, but then he was fat and washed up, a caricature of his former glory.

That's an interpretation of Welles that won't hold up to inspection. Did he get fat? Yes, indeed. So what?

Did he do commercials for wine and frozen peas? Yes, and Jimmy Stewart did ads for Campbell's soup and Firestone tires. Lauren Bacall did voiceover work selling cat food. What's the goddamn point? When he was in the full bloom of his glory in New York in the 1930s, Welles regularly did radio ads selling all kinds of crap. You gotta pay the bills, and that kind of work has long been a source of revenue for actors. I'm sick of every two-bit hack entertainment writer assigned with doing a Welles piece googling the man's name and then trotting out the same tired bullshit about how Welles started out great and then ended up doing commercials.

He made magnificent movies in his middle-age, years after he was supposedly washed up. Films like
Touch of Evil, The Immortal Story, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, and F for Fake didn't make money and didn't win awards, but they're great works art that have only grown in stature over the years. Yes, things got tough toward the end. The money dried up. Welles was old and broke in a business where only youth and money matter. When he died at his desk, working on a script, the industry which had never, ever, embraced him said, "What a loss. He started out so well." These late years--the years when he couldn't get money and couldn't get projects off the ground--are covered nicely in Joseph McBride's What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? How Welles really dealt with these travails is more telling, and more interesting, than the myth of his fall from grace.

Of course, no matter how well we document or investigate the touching older Welles, or the brilliant middle-aged Welles, the main appeal of the man will probably always be the firecracker who burst onto the stage in his teens and became an international sensation before he was twenty-five. It's just too good a story.

It's the story director Richard Linklater has chosen to dramatize in his new film Me & Orson Welles. Based on the short novel by Robert Kaplow, it tells the story of a young aspiring actor (played by Zac Efron) who talks his way into a job at the Mercury Theater just as Welles is about to open his famous 1937 production of
Julius Caesar. Kaplow's novel is a light little pleasure and Linklater's film follows suit. The cast is uniformly good (Efron is a capable actor with interesting eyes, and Clare Danes, who plays his would-be girlfriend, is as likable as ever), and Linklater directs in a tone that can only be described as winsome. It's a coming of age tale and a love letter to the artistic process.

It also enshrines the young Orson Welles in another layer of myth. He's played here by Christian McKay in a completely winning performance (much the film's charm emanates from him). McKay bears some resemblance to the Great One, and his impersonation is spot-on--he particularly understands how Welles used his eyebrows to register bemusement at the peculiarities of other people. He's too old, of course, but who wouldn't be? Welles was a babyfaced 22 when he directed
Caesar, and no one can match that bizarre 'old soul/young firebrand' quality that marked the young Welles. He was a brat, an insanely brilliant brat, and that combination marked him as something of a beautiful freak. McKay gets at this quality, this sense that Welles has somehow simultaneously absorbed all of western literature and does not seem to feel the least bit intimidated by it (this is a guy who felt no compunction about rewriting Shakespeare, a quality that would serve him well in his film adaptations).

Like most portrayals of The Young Welles,
Me & Orson Welles puts a little too much emphasis on his grandiose nature and tyrannical temper. I'm not saying Welles couldn't be a hard way to go, but there were other aspects to the man. For one thing, he was a serious thinker. A committed leftist, many of his early projects had a distinctly political subtext, including his infamous productions of The Cradle Will Rock and the "Voodoo Macbeth". His production of Caesar, lovingly recreated by Linklater, was overtly political and was received as such (read TIME magazine's rave review). Another fault of film is that it paints a rather saintly picture of John Houseman. I have great respect for Houseman, and I think Welles bears the brunt of the blame for their eventual falling out, but their stormy relationship was somewhat more complicated than the film suggests.

Still, a Wellesian can't help but enjoy the film. It acknowledges the inescapable fact--a fact quite as interesting as any film he made--that Welles was more than a filmmaker. His personality simply shone so brightly that it has reached across the years. He's become the archetypal wunderkind, the young man in a hurry. As great as Hitchcock was, as great as Bergman, Fellini, Ford, Hawks were--they simply don't cut the figure that Welles does. He's truly a character now, and in that way he's more a part of the cinema, more a part of the culture, than ever.


Laurie Powers said...

Fabulous post Jake! Learned a lot about Welles who is probably one of my favorite actor/producer/directors ever.

Corey Wilde said...

Wonderful post! This is how I see the man, flawed but not diminished.

Alex Fraser said...

Nicely written, very fair to Orson Welles, and especially to ME AND ORSON WELLES.

Paul D Brazill said...

Brilliant post. I fear that I may have to forgive Linklater for School Of Rock.

Demon Denim said...

Linklater is one of my favorites and when I heard about this movie, I got very excited- part of that excitment was knowing that you'd be tossing in your (very valuable) two cents.