Richard Samuels is a 17-year-old kid in the late 1930s who’s in love with the works of Noel Coward and the romantic idea of someday making a living trodding the boards. Sure, he’s not much of an actor, but why should that minor detail stop him? Bit parts in his high school productions? He’s just saving his talent for the big time!
But then one day the handsome kid happens to be in the right place at the right time. While standing outside the Mercury Theater he’s spotted by a verbose and pompous young director named Orson Welles and offered a small role on the spot.
Over the next week, Richard slips out of school, lies to his mother and spends every waking minute immersed in the wild world of New York theater. Sure, there’s his tiny role to prepare for. But this adventure is so much bigger than that. He gets to rub elbows with soon-to-be greats such as John Houseman and Joseph Cotton. He’s wooing (and scheming to bed) a twentysomething dream girl. He’s part of the manipulative politics of a cast full of preening actors. And, of course, he gets to live under the demanding thumb of the impetuous genius Welles.
The overly ambitious, modern-costumed and fascist-themed production of Julius Caesar may well end up being a one-performance bust. But, hey, once his mom figures out he’s been lying and sneaking out at night, he’ll probably be grounded anyway.
Richard uses his Mercury Theater connections to help Gretta, a young struggling writer, get her short story published. His intentions aren’t altogether altruistic when the two first meet. But he eventually proves to be a sincere, supportive friend. In fact, it’s this one upright relationship that appears to be an enduring one. By the end of his experience on the New York stage, Richard realizes that he may not be cut out for the "actor’s life," but he and Gretta both share a love for the creative arts.
On different occasions Orson tells people that they are specially gifted, calling them "God-created" actors. A heated Orson tells a stagehand, "Those back doors do not open for Jesus Christ Himself."
Sonja, who expresses a very casual attitude about sex and confesses to sleeping with various men to get the things or positions she’s wants, invites Richard over to Orson’s in-town apartment and changes into a flimsy nightgown. The two kiss and it’s implied that they sleep together.
Orson, who is said to have a pregnant wife at home and several mistresses on the side, spends a night with Sonja as well. And other men in the cast speak of trying to bed her and even make bets on who will do so first. Orson flirts with and then drives off to an implied sexual liaison with a secretary from a recording studio.
When Richard asks Sonja what it’s like to be a "beautiful woman," she discusses her flaws, including the fact that her breasts are different sizes. During a trip to a museum, Richard and Gretta walk by naked male and female statues. A painting of a nude woman—sitting with her back to the viewer—hangs over Orson’s bed.
Some women, including Sonja, wear low-cut, cleavage-baring dresses.
A stagehand falls through a hole in the stage and we see him later in bandages. When a sprinkler system goes off accidentally, actors slip and fall. When Richard argues with Orson, the director grabs the boy roughly by the collar and pushes him against a wall. Within parts of the play, actors have stage blood on their hands and costumes.
Crude or Profane Language
The s-word is used a half-dozen times along with six or more each of the words "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑." "A‑‑" is interjected a couple of times. God’s and Jesus’ names are misused over 20 times. (God’s name is often combined with "d‑‑n.")
Drug and Alcohol Content
Orson smokes cigars constantly. Other members of the cast and crew smoke cigarettes. Orson calms a panic-stricken actor with a glassful of Scotch. Richard and Sonja drink wine. A crowd of partygoers down wine and mixed drinks
Other Negative Elements
Orson continually lies to people (including Richard) to manipulate them into following his lead. He also quotes a well-written section out of a novel and convinces some actors that it’s a brilliant improvisation. Richard lies several times to his mother.
Orson Welles’ career began with robust Shakespearian orations, soared with highly touted cinematic masterpieces, floundered in later B-grade films and ended with weary, rumbling baritone hawks for frozen peas and cheap wine.
The movie Me and Orson Welles feels like it has a similar trajectory.
It does a good job of depicting the piecing together of one of Welles’ early and famous triumphs on New York’s Mercury Theater stage. It adequately portrays the realistic agonies and joys of saving a show from a seeming certain disaster. It gives us a front row seat to the familial-feeling ties and dog-eat-dog backstabbings of stage work. And it provides the platform for a stellar performance by Christian McKay that utterly captures the buoyancy and bombast of a twentysomething Welles.
The movie even sets up a nice philosophical juxtaposition between Sonja and Gretta, female characters who never meet but who symbolize the divergent ways a person can approach art, careers and life itself: One woman is confident but jaded, unconcerned with artistry or excellence and ready to sell her virtue to get ahead. The other is filled with self-doubt, but almost naively hopeful for the future and the transforming power of art. It’s a small but thought-provoking part of the film.
Unfortunately, those endearing bits don’t actually carry the day. Me and Orson Welles often feels like one of those stage plays that doesn’t quite end up working. The period stage dressing slips from time to time and often feels like a one-dimensional flat. Next to McKay, leading man Zac Efron seems charming but way out of his depth. The story ambles and drags when it should step lively. And the sometimes profane and sometimes morally laissez-faire world of Welles and his cast tends to leave the film’s potential charm waiting in the wings.
All in all, a nice effort. But more frozen pea than masterpiece.