Me and Orson Welles, Richard Linklater, director, 2009
HOOK: Orson Welles
LINE: “How the hell do I top this?”
SINKER: The chance to be sprayed by Orson Welles spit.
JOHN: I love this film. Christian McKay plays Welles better than the real Welles could have, and despite second billing in the title, the great man is center stage. But like in real life as with McKay’s flawless channeling, how do you deal with Orson Welles—not only how do actors in his stage production of a modern dress Julius Caesar deal with him, but how do we in the audience respond after reeling from his histrionics/genius. The answer is “carefully.” Linklater gives us Disney star Zac Efron, who is taken in and spit out, and that almost balances off the maestro, exhibitionist, conjurer, Falstaff, self-romancer, spotlight-hogging, cigar-gnawing, womanizer Welles. There’s a seemingly effortless recreation of the 1937 times, and what I loved best was the spirit of putting a show together (doing whatever it takes), pulling it off and then wondering if any of this matters to anyone. It is the basis of everything theatrical from a high school play to Shakespeare. If you’ve ever been bit by the artistic bug, see this movie, it’s about you.
GO GO GO GO (4 GOs out of four)
SPANKY: Well, John, what could I expect from someone who called his literary magazine Rosebud or if I am to believe you, actually saw Orson Welles direct a made-for-TV film in Yugoslavia? But your last sentence proviso might explain the empty theater and poor distribution of this good film. You have to bring something to the viewing experience. The romantic connection between Zac Efron and Zoe Kazan is pleasant enough to watch and a fitting consolation to the young actor’s betrayal by Welles, but there is a distance between the “me” and the audience. Maybe necessary because Welles is originally snagged by the young man’s moxi (above and beyond what most of us are capable of). We are shocked by his being fired, but it is not as if it has happened to us. I’m not faulting the performances, just saying that it would be a leap to imagine being part of something so much bigger than life and many movies do a better job of making the story something we experience rather than watch. In my mind the director has yet to bridge that gap between Before Sunset and Citizen Kane, but hey, who has. On the plus side, what the movie presents of the play makes me want to see Caesar and the radio broadcast was equally enthralling. This is a love letter to show business, it’s just that to appreciate it you already have to have those stars in your eyes.
BARK, BARK, BARK, BARK, (4 BARKs out of four)
ADDITIONAL. I’d just left the Army and we are on the first leg of a year’s journey that took us to Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Portugal and back to Germany. Anyway, it was a warm early fall afternoon in Split, Yugoslavia, and a crowd was gathering several blocks away. With our one-year-old in a carrier on my back, we hurry down the seaside street to see what possibly could be going on.
There’s the snapshot in my memory that remains. A movie was being shot in front of an old hotel. This is intriguing in itself. But then we look past the actors and cameras and see that the man directing it is none other than…the legendary…Orson Welles.
He looked terrible. As wide as he was tall, he was dressed in a black shirt, black trousers, and a black suit coat that he must have slept in. His hair was greasy and hanging straight over his forehead and his corpulent face was a sweaty, beet red. He seemed to be tilting slightly backwards to balance his colossal weight.
But it was the Orson Welles. Orson Welles directing!
A taxi pulled in front of the hotel entrance and as the woman got out the camera on the other side zoomed in, shooting into the interior of the automobile she was leaving. All this was done without any verbal direction. In fact this seemed to be more a rehearsal or a scene that would be shot.
Then Orson Welles turned to the cameraman.
My God, I thought, I am going to hear the greatest cinematic genius of all time actually tell his cameraman what to do.
He said, with that still-sonorous Orson Welles voice coming from deep in his diaphragm as if from the bottom of a huge, empty barrel, “Mario, keep your eyes on the camera, these people will steal anything.”
That was it?
Probably no one in the crowd but my now ex-wife, Pat, and I understood English, but we laughed all afternoon repeating the words:
“Mario, keep your eyes on the camera.”
And our baby laughed too…so hard and so beautifully…that during the whole rest of the trip if we wanted him to roll with laughter, we say…“Mario, keep your eyes on the camera!”
What an anticlimax, but looking back what could he have said that would be more memorable? For Orson Welles—known as the boy genius because of his early masterpiece, Citizen Kane—making movies for TV in Yugoslavia was probably the low point of his career. And here was my son beginning his life…with wonderful giggles. My little boy’s laughter was his masterpiece. To his parents, he was “our baby genius.”