If you share an interest in my guilty pleasures in life (chocolate pie, Survivor, Fred Astaire movies and Zac Ephron), you might enjoy “Me and Orson Welles.” The date is 1937, and Zac Ephron plays high-school student Richard Samuels. Samuels stumbles upon the Mercury Theater, run by a brash, 22-year-old Orson Welles. In the ’30s, the theater also employed such acting notables of the time, such as Joseph Cotton (veteran of a number of Welles’ films), Ruth Warrick (who played Pheobe Wallingford on “All My Children”) and Agnes Moorehead (who played Endora on “Bewitched”). Cotton, Warrick and Moorehead all had roles in “Citizen Kane”.
Although Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater are real-life historical fixtures, Richard Samuels is a fictional creation – an innocent who plays well in contrast to the worldly Welles. Due to some synchronous good luck and quick thinking, Samuels ends up playing a minor character in Welle’s production of “Julius Ceasar”. He learns very quickly that Welles is an egotistical, overbearing dictator with narcissistic tendencies. And those are his good qualities. Welles also enjoys seducing all available females (although he is married and his wife is pregnant), whether the object of his affection is his “Ceasar” co-star playing Portia or his stage manager, Sonja Jones, played by Clare Danes.
Jones is an interesting character for the era: she is a Vassar graduate and an overtly ambitious career woman who apparently feels it is fine, and perhaps essential, to trade her sexual favors in order to be connected to such other movie/theater heavy weights such as John Houseman and David O. Selznick. Jones has a brief dalliance with Samuels just before the play opens, but then has to tell him that she is also going to engage in the same “activities” with Welles at his request:
Sonja Jones: Orson wants to stay with me tonight.
Richard Samuels: Stay with you tonight?
Sonja Jones: I’m in no position to refuse.
Richard Samuels: What are you talking about?
Sonja Jones: I have to watch out for myself. That’s what my whole life has taught me again and again.
Perhaps because of his youth, Samuels confronts Welles in order to “fight for” Jones, but Jones is not really amenable to this behavior. She is okay with the part she has chosen in life.
Christian McKay plays Orson Welles; he has a very slight resemblance to Welles, and an acting style that is not too exciting or memorable to me, although I read other reviews that seem to rave about his portrayal of Welles. For some reason, I really didn’t believe he was the ego-maniacal yet youthfully brilliant Welles. There was a darker element missing in his performance that was ever present in older interviews of the real Welles. Also, Welles was 22 in 1937, and MacKay (35 at the time he made this movie) is just too old to imbue that true youthful presence. I found that MacKay was doing an impression of Welles – one that would be passable and perhaps even applauded at any cocktail party – but lacking the brooding-dark-genius of Welles’ true essence.
Regardless, it is a nice period piece with realistic, historical touches, including references to and background music of the time – Gershwin and Richard Rodgers– and the ’30s clothing, and the tonal feeling of the era through the muted taupes and browns and burgundys and grays, and the fleeting mentions of Gielgud, Houseman and David O. Selznick. Zac Ephron was the perfect choice to play the coming-of-age innocent – there is truly nothing like a close up on that luminous, almost angelic face.
I do recommend this movie.
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