The question going into Me and Orson Welles seems obvious: Does Zac Efron have the chops to become acting’s Justin Timberlake, or is he doomed to the Disney shooting star fate of, say, Hayley Mills? You come away from Me and Orson Welles wondering, who the heck was that guy playing Orson Welles? And, for Richard Linklater enthusiasts, man, why isn’t this guy talked about when we talk about the great working directors?
Let’s discuss Troy Bolton first. Efron plays Richard, a kid in love with theater and music and art—more specifically, he’s in love with the romantic idea of creating art and living the bohemian life. He meets a kindred spirit, Gretta (Zoe Kazan), in a music shop meet-cute that evokes Once’s bonding scene between Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. She’s a wannabe writer who plays piano and is despondent over Gershwin’s death; he’s, “Well, I’m sort of an actor.” It’s hard not to laugh—Zac, my boy, this is going to be a long two hours if you’re not a full-on actor.
After Richard cons his way into Welles’ first Mercury Theater show, Julius Caesar set in Mussolini’s Italy, McKay’s Orson Welles overtakes the film—as Welles inevitably does to his production. It’s not that McKay rampages the movie, but he infuses Welles with such hubristic bellowing genius that he draws attention away from the fact that the High School Musical kid is in an arthouse film. In other words, Efron is still the lead actor, but he doesn’t have to carry the film.
This is not stunt casting on Linklater’s part: Richard needs the wit and charisma to impress Welles enough in two minutes to get in the show, handsome and confident enough to catch the interest of show-secretary Claire Danes, and pull off a top-shelf performance as Lucius, Brutus’ servant who sings a “restful song” before Caesar’s ghost appears. Efron is still slight enough to be diminished by McKay, but wide-eyed and confident enough to seem like a protégé. Linklater doesn’t put too much on the kid, and positions the role to fit his strengths—exactly how Welles cast Richard.
The true star is McKay, who says that Welles’ outsized persona actually helped him developed the character. You see McKay’s Welles acting as if he’s ORSON WELLES, consciously developing the myth of his genius. Of course, Welles’ curse is that he is a genius and he knows it (in the one moment he loses control, he screams, “I’m Orson Welles!!!”). Welles effortlessly eviscerates John Gielgud (“Has anyone ever been so in love with the sound of his own voice?”) and ad-libs a radio show, forcing his fellow actors to stare breathlessly at his genius. Welles has so internalized the material that he’s performing as he directs, and everyone is forced to admit that, when it comes to the play, he’s right.
Roger Ebert called Me and Orson Welles “one of the best movies about the theater I’ve ever seen,” and I’m not inclined to disagree. If you look past the performances, Richard Linklater forms the material into some dramatic statements about art, yes, but also genius. Welles is the dictator of the Mercury, a Caesar that his actors, like Brutus, both love and want to stab in the back. But Welles doesn’t see himself as the aging, weak Caesar. He sees himself as both the young, vibrant Caesar and Brutus—he’s the dictator that will stab you in the back for the good of Rome. The show lay in shambles, and Welles rushes in to save the day, remaining the noblest director of them all because he acts in the best interest of the play. The fact that Brutus commits suicide makes us contemplate the obese, wine-pitching, “Magnum P.I.” voice-overing caricature Welles became.
No man could ever live up to the myth Welles created for himself, especially when that myth hurt Welles’ fundraising efforts for his late-career films. Linklater dramatizes this idea in Welles’ framing of the Cinna scene in Caesar: The innocent poet, mistaken for one of the conspirators, is killed in an alley by men in suits, as if the mob is actually “The Mob.” If that’s how The Genius sees himself—the innocent torn apart by powerful men in suits who really run things—then that’s exactly what’s going to happen to him.
Still, Linklater’s Welles is more complex than a tortured genius and drama queen—in his self-aggrandizing way, he’s a mentor to the company. Perhaps the closest character in Linklater’s filmography is Dewey Finn, Jack Black’s substitute teacher in School of Rock. That film is, really, one of the great teacher movies. Linklater is one of the few filmmakers who understands the paradox of great teaching: An education is system-sponsored and approved independent thinking, requiring a dynamic, megalomaniacal personality to pull off. This explains the scenes of Richard in his literature classroom, daydreaming through dry, formal lectures about the “meaning” of Shakespeare. What better teacher of Shakespeare than Orson Welles, whose direction is a series of lessons in how to interpret the play?
The difference between Finn and Welles is that Finn has the selflessness of a true mentor. Finn tells the kids that rock is about sticking it to authority, “and right now, I’m the authority.” One of the nerdiest kids responds: “You’re fat and a loser.” A gleam comes to Dewey’s face: “Well, all right then.” Dewey Finn leaves no child behind. Welles, though, coaxes out great performances only to get “his” opening. He’s the authority, and it’s damn well going to stay that way. This hubris, though, is how one falls from being the King Henry of your own theater to Falstaff on “The Dean Martin Show.”