Orson Welles, Something Smells
The amazing thing about Orson Welles is that he was so much larger than life, he’s warranted several depictions on screen to tell parts of his life story. There are ‘The Night That Panicked America’; ‘RKO 281’ which was all about the making of ‘Citizen Kane’, the ‘Cradle Will Rock’ chronicling the musical production, but also vital moments in ‘Radio Days’ ‘Ed Wood’, ‘Heavenly Creatures’ as well.
He was so interesting stories about him doing things seem to warrant as much cultural space as his own films. Taken on their own they don’t seem to be much, but the more people refer to him and cast other actors to play him, it sort of obfuscates the outline of his work.
What’s Good About It
The film’s script is witty enough that parts of it are more mirthful than one would imagine. The period feel is well done and the concentrated action in the theatre space helps to maintain the mood and feel. Exteriors that might strain the budget are kept to a minimum.
The real strength of the film is in the cast. The performances are solid enough and not given to too much whimsy that creeps in when films dissect actors. Zac Efron is passably good (he gets a lot of screen time without getting boring); James Tupper who plays Joe Cotton is particularly impressive; Clare Danes is Clare Danes (something a little naff about her in this one); Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris is quite good; Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd is a little too mincing, but still fun. Combined, the sum total of these performances builds a very believable time and space.
Also, the directing makes no attempt to emulate Welles’ style. Thank goodness for that!
What’s Bad About It
I know Christian McKay has portrayed Orson Welles a lot and often, but unfortunately he’s too old in this film version. Welles was born in in 1915. 1937 puts him at about 22. McKay simply looks too old. Also, McKay has the diction down, but his voice is not enough like Welles. They’re minor quibbles, but they do a lot to damage the credibility of what’s happening on screen.
For a reference, this is what Orson Welles looked like at about the time he was doing Julius Caesar:
With all due respect to Chris MacKay and his craft, he just doesn’t have the bloom of youth.
What’s Interesting About It
Any time you have a close look at Orson Welles career, you’re struck by how much he was able to do at such a young age. It is as if he appeared into the world fully formed. The anecdotes of him quoting Shakespeare at three seem far fetched and yet he had an encyclopaedic command of the Shakespeare canon by the time he was 18. By the time he was doing his Julius Caesar with the newly minted Mercury Theater, he already was a tyro in New York.
Consider that he was 25 when he did Citizen Kane. This number has weighed on the vast majority of film students who get to Film Schools in their twenties and find that Orson Welles had carved a place in history with just one film by the time he was 25. Perhaps this is why Welles keeps on inspiring film makers to do bio pics or reference him as a character.
How difficult the rest of his career turned out is yet another story. Orson Welles’ amazing career to the point of ‘Citizen Kane’ in a sense defined the young new director with a vision ever since, and just about everybody who got a big break at a young age in Hollywood owes it to Welles blazing that path.
Consider for a moment that the people who put the Mercury Theater were a bunch of twenty-somethings and ended up having such far-reaching cultural impact, and then ponder the opportunities that are genuinely available today. The only other parallel I could think of, is The Beatles and the British invasion or Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the personal computing revolution.
To be fair, not every group of twenty-somethings is going to be brilliant, but it happens quite seldom, when you look at history from at birds’ eye view. The only way it happens is if the area is new and not too much is established, like talking pictures in the 1930s or Rock music in the 60s or personal computers in the late 70s. Once the area gets established and built up, you only get the facsimile of youthful exuberance. Which brings me to our current incarnation of youthful zest…,
This is the young person we get today, marketed to us by the dream factory marketing machine. He can dance, he can sing, and he can act well enough to pass on TV. Still, he’s no Orson Welles. It’s not a fair comparison, and he might be the next Leo DiCaprio, but you get my point.
The director for this film Richard Linklater is doing some interesting work lately. There’s ‘School of Rock’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Fast Food Nation’ to his credit as well as this film but also ‘Bernie’. He sure picks and chooses some interesting things to film. I don’t know how all these films connect up in his thinking and that alone makes it fascinating.