“I had some trepidation about coming to Pasadena,” explained Christian McKay in last Sunday’s Q&A at the Laemmle Playhouse following Me and Orson Welles, in which he brilliantly portrays the famed cineaste. He noted The Magnificent Ambersons was test screened at the historic Pasadena Playhouse across the street, where 50 percent of the audience loved it (“I’ve seen the response cards”) and the other fifty percent hated it, thus prompting RKO to butcher one of the most elegant films in American history. McKay seemed to impress everyone at the Q&A, however, as much for his Welles knowledge as his cordiality and natural theatricality (spontaneously reciting Welles’ monologue about Chartres Cathedral from F for Fake).
McKay first played Welles on stage in 2004, and has since immersed himself researching the artist’s life and work; his uncanny performance–less an impersonation than a fully articulate rendering of Welles’ aura, by turns cajoling and domineering–is one of the highlights of Richard Linklater’s passionate new film. (At the Q&A, McKay also provided an eloquent defense of Welles’ late career and rightly championed 1965’s Chimes at Midnight as perhaps Welles’ greatest achievement, adding that he and Linklater have fantasized about dramatizing the filmmaker’s late period in another twenty-odd years.)
A lot of friends and colleagues saw Me and Orson Welles in Toronto in 2008, where the well-received film promptly dropped off the radar. A fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times a few months ago explains the details behind its complicated and unusual distribution plan.
Based on Robert Kaplow’s 2003 novel, the film stars Zac Efron as a teenage idealist who lands a minor role in Welles’ 1937 stage production of Julius Ceasar, which James Naremore describes in The Magic World of Orson Welles as “one of the most celebrated American presentations of Shakespeare in this century.” It’s a breezy but deeply felt coming of age story that thrusts the viewer into the manic, creative, but cutthroat milieu of New Deal theatrical experimentation.
The movie feels spontaneous and effortless but it’s propelled by exacting camera movements and an energetic momentum. Over the past few years, Linklater has proved himself a master of casually intense cinema (Waking Life, Tape, Before Sunset, A Scanner Darkly), but here he exhibits a visual precision and almost musical sense of pace. (The film’s juxtaposition of grand spaces with intimate, emotional interludes feels like a musical staged without the singing–although one particular tune serves a dramatic focal point.)
At McKay’s Q&A, he talked about the differences between theatrical and screen acting, and Linklater’s sensitivity to volume and expression, and the film’s entire cast interacts with an impressive homogeneity despite the prevalence of iconic characters and the potential for hammy performances. (Eddie Marsen’s John Houseman and James Tupper’s Joseph Cotten are particularly subtle and compelling.) This isn’t the kind of cutesy period piece that offers a historical wink and nod to its audience every two seconds, but a genuine narrative about trusting one’s own passions and the modest friendship of others over the machinations and serendipity of glamor. It’s acutely aware of the difference between icons and inspiration, and benefits enormously from its own resistance to caricature or eulogy.