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Me and Orson Welles

In 1937, actor-director-impresario Orson Welles and his partner John Houseman found themselves frozen out of the Federal Theatre project, funded by the Roosevelt administration’s Works Projects Administration, when they defied their federal sponsor by going through with a production of Mark Blickstein’s musical labor drama Cradle Will Rock. Various conservative members of Congress yielded to the demands of executives from the steel industry, who were portrayed unfavorably in the work, and cut off funding. Welles and Houseman then founded the Mercury Theatre in New York and made plans for a modern-dress, fascist-themed production of Julius Caesar.

In Me and Orson Welles, 17-going-on-18-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) virtually wanders in off a Manhattan street to become a minor member of the cast, picked in part because Welles (Christian McKay) likes the kid’s moxie. And so begins a quick education in life and art. Richard learns that theater folk can be kind and dedicated as well as egoistically cruel and ruthless.

Richard Linklater’s (Slackers) movie is mostly pretty mild if generally pleasant coming-of-age stuff, but it’s noteworthy for two things: Christian McKay’s remarkable, compelling and utterly convincing performance as the titanically self-motivated, self-mythologizing legend of theater and movies, and for the interesting contribution it makes to the long-running debate about Welles. The movie depicts him as something like the enormously gifted creative force he imagined himself to be, but also as a man who could brook no arguments and barely tolerated anyone else’s claims to credit. (Cineastes will probably recognize that this bears on the bitter argument the late Pauline Kael started when she wrote that Welles tried to deny writer Herman Manciewicz his share of the glory for Citizen Kane.)

Efron, until recently the toothsome dream princeling of millions of tween girls, isn’t an arresting screen presence yet, but he has charm and he shows signs he could become a real actor.

george sax

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