Any American with talent and artistic ambition must be a little haunted by Orson Welles. On the one hand, there is his achievement – he wrote (cowrote), directed, and starred in Citizen Kane, universally acknowledged as one of the five or so greatest films of all time, when he was 25 – and on the other hand, there is his life. He lost his mother when he was nine, his father when he was fifteen. For every success he had three failures. He began innumerable projects and finished very few of them. Not being able to work for others, he spent his career mostly outside Hollywood, scraping together, or rather failing to scrape together, financing for projects. What income he received from his later work was often possessed by the Internal Revenue Service – he paid no attention to details like accounting (another reason why financiers avoided him). There are the three divorces. He was at one point so fat – over four hundred pounds – that he had to lose weight to play the part of Falstaff. At the end of his life there is the debasement, the man who could not compromise his artistic integrity working for a studio selling his deep baritone for petty advertisements. You can see in his old face that he was tortured by the thought of a life misspent somehow: he hardly knows quite how, but somehow he knew he failed (a look all the more powerful to me because in his old age he looked so much like my father).
The reasons for this – a cult of genius which valued inception and idea and devalued devotion and fruition, the lack of artistic traditions in America capacious enough to train something greater than mere talent, an immense need for love on Welles’ part which art or fame never had any hope of assuaging anyway – are not the topic of the movie Me and Orson Welles. But Welles’ presence inevitably brings them up, and the movie does not shrink from them. The Welles-character gives in the film his version of the actors’ creed, and it seems about right for him (and many artists): your own life, if you looked straight at it, is so petty and trivial and empty, that you need to latch on to something like greatness – Caesar, Othello, Shakespeare – to fill in the inner emptiness, and give you a respite from yourself. This seems perennially relevant to the problem of “the artist” as he is defined in our society, and on some level is so obvious it does well with the oblique treatment this movie gives it, and in the meantime you can bask in the upside of young genius: the grandiloquence, the self-staging, the passion and the irresponsible epicureanism.
The movie uses a time-honored plot mechanism to offer perspective on genius: a blank, youthful protagonist (Zac Efron, who is somewhat shamefully given a modern haircut and looks woefully out of place, but he fulfills his basic function of being more or less nice to look at). By a combination of luck and timely chutzpah this young man makes an impression on Welles and lands a bit part in a production of Julius Caesar (as Lucius), and because he is so youthful and unthreatening he is able to befriend just about as many members of the cast as we can handle in a two hour movie. There is a bit of sexual Bildungsroman material in his encounter with Welles’ assistant, played (quite radiantly) by Claire Danes. As is so often true of female roles, she brings tragedy in her wake, there being only one of her, and many who desire her, which happens in life quite enough.
There are enough movies about the backstage hijinks of theatrical life, but that is because it makes an interesting subject: eccentric personalities, endless flirtations with disaster, engagement with real genius and high idea (here in the form of Julius Caesar). This is another one to add to the list.
But the lynchpin of the movie is Christian McKay’s portrayal of Welles. Some roles are almost impossible to adequately play: it is unlikely we will ever have an actor who could play the real-life Julius Caesar well (as opposed to Shakespeare’s fake marble colossus), because a man capable of such portrayal would become a Caesar, not an actor. Similarly there is some danger in being given the role of a theatrical genius: you really must play well in order to give plausibility to the whole. McKay’s performance is astonishing, really: the deep, resonant voice, the staginess but also brilliance are all there. There is a physical resemblance as well. He is the obvious center of the screen at all times, just as Welles must have been in real life. But this is not a meticulous reproduction: Welles was only 22 when he directed and starred in his Julius Caesar, but it would be nearly impossible to get a 22-year-old to do the job McKay does. You do not mind, because the focus of the movie is not so much a moment in Welles’ life as a general portrait of his artistic program (Robert Bolt did similar work refashioning Lawrence of Arabia’s life into a film).
The play – which gets very nice treatment in the movie – is also used to reflect on the character of Welles in a very satisfying way. You are well aware that certain speeches are meant to indicate Welles, and that there is a correspondence between the man and the plays he loved and staged:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
… He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men…
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous. (I.ii)
This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’ (V.v)