Mercurial Theatre

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The love I have for good cinema was mainly instilled in me by viewing the works of one remarkable man: Orson Welles (1915-85). Welles is now the subject of a splendid new comedy, “Me and Orson Welles.” This film is delightfully good, both as a comedy and as a meditation on the magic of the stage.

If anyone ever deserved to be called “larger than life,” Welles certainly did. He was a major force in America’s golden age of radio, as well as in American theater and film. In his amazing career, he was highly successful as an actor (including voice actor), director, producer, and writer. Indeed, as recently as 2002 he was voted the greatest director of all time in the British Film Institute’s poll of top ten directors.

Welles got his start in acting when he took a trip to Europe after graduating from high school. He talked his way into an acting job at the Gate Theater in Dublin in 1931, receiving great accolades when he was just 16. He returned to school the next year and wrote a series of educational books on Shakespeare. The following year he started on stage in New York. There he met director and producer John Houseman, and by the mid-1930s he was acting on stage and in radio, in which medium he rapidly became a star.

By age 20, Welles was viewed as quite the prodigy, having directed a highly successful adaption of “Macbeth” as well as other dramas. In 1936, he and Houseman formed their own acting company, the Mercury Theater, with a group of excellent actors, including Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Delores del Rio, Agnes Moorehead, and Everett Sloane.

Welles began to work in Hollywood in 1939. By 1941, he had made a motion picture that is considered one of the greatest ever made, “Citizen Kane” (loosely based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst). The term “made” is especially apt, because Welles not only directed the film but cowrote the screenplay, produced the movie, and played the lead, with supporting help from several of his friends from the Mercury Theater. He went on to direct, produce, and star in a number of classics of American cinema, many of which are still shown in revival art houses – “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Journey into Fear,” “The Stranger,” “The Lady from Shanghai,” “Macbeth,” “The Third Man,” “Othello,” “A Touch of Evil,” and “The Trial.”

Now, the first production of the Mercury Theater had been an adaption of “Julius Caesar,” timely set in Fascist Italy. The staging of this 1937 production is the subject of “Me and Orson Welles.” The main character is a high school student named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who is visiting Manhattan with hopes of becoming an actor. The character and the story are based on a real-life actor, Arthur Anderson, who lives in New York to this day. Richard bumps into the Mercury actors outside a run-down theater and encounters Welles himself. He bluffs his way into a small role in the production of “Julius Caesar.” Richard thus does what Welles himself had done when Welles was 16.

Richard finds himself caught up in an extraordinary circle: Houseman (Eddie Marsan), fidgeting and fussing as he tries to get the play ready; the actors, including Cotten (James Tupper) and Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), as they try to get their lines straight and figure out what Welles is after; and most of all Welles (Christian McKay), who is almost totally egotistical, vain, and narcissistic. And Richard is soon smitten by lovely Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a young production assistant who turns out to be very ambitious, indeed.

As the company of actors grows increasingly concerned about whether the show will open (while Welles spends most of his time doing radio work and seducing young actresses), Richard finds himself fighting Welles for Sonja’s favor. Welles, ever the egotist, fires Richard. (One of the great lines in the movie occurs when Cotten says to Richard, “I said fight for her, not fight Orson for her!”) But then Welles tries to woo Richard back for the impending opening. The clash between the two men leads to an unpredictable opening night.

All this is sweetly and humorously portrayed. The idea of conveying the ambiance of a new entertainment medium during its most flourishing period by showing a young man caught up with its major players is not new. I’m thinking of a film that is similar in concept, called “My Favorite Year” (1982), a comic gem starring Peter O’Toole and Mark Linn-Baker. It gave the viewer an impression of what life was like during the classic period of television comedy. This movie is equally funny and charming.

The acting in the current film is marvelous. Zac Efron, a teen heartthrob who starred in Disney’s “High School Musical” series, rises to the occasion here, playing the naive but earnest Richard. Claire Danes plays a pretty, and pretty conniving, Sonja.

But especially striking are the actors who play Welles, Houseman, and Cotten. McKay is a natural choice for Welles: he resembles Welles, and he has already performed a one-man show based on Welles. Arthur Anderson, who has seen the movie, said McKay

During the fictional play’s opening night, a mysterious alchemy takes place as the play comes to life and draws the audience into its spell

 

captured Welles very well, convey- ing his domineering, narcissistic, yet charming personality. James Tupper is excellent as Cotten; again, the physical resemblance is striking, and the acting is finely nuanced. Eddie Marsan convincingly portrays Houseman.

I must commend the director, Richard Linklater, for doing some- thing more than eliciting some amazing performances from some relatively unknown (though fine) actors. He is able to make us see, through the eyes of Richard, how the stage is strangely enticing and repelling at the same time. We see the arrogance and the back- stabbing ambition of the players, and, through some interesting camera shots, we even see how the actors (especially Welles) spray spit in the air as they speak. All this conveys to us how ordinary, yet perhaps not as nice as ordinary, the actors are.

Despite it all, during the fictional play’s opening night, a mysterious alchemy takes place, as the play comes to life and draws the audience into its spell. Richard gets to see this alchemy, and it moves him to declare that he wants to be a part of it. It’s a magic that continues to draw audiences in, to the live stage as well as the movie theater. Film lovers will not want to miss this one.

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