When I heard that teenage heartthrob Zac Efron was going to star in Richard Linklater’s film based on the novel by Robert Kaplow about a fledgling actor who gets his lucky break playing Lucius in Orson Welles’ legendary Mercury Theatre Broadway debut production of Julius Caesar in 1937, I was a little uneasy yet undeterred due to my enduring fascination with Welles it was always going to be compulsory viewing.
Having sat through at least two of the High School Musical movies my expectations were set suitably low, however much to my surprise Efron acquits himself rather well here as his easy looks and effortless charm are a perfect fit for the role of Richard Samuels, an indefatigable stage-struck romantic who forms a rapport with the celebrated iconoclast Orson Welles played with startling verisimilitude by newcomer Christian McKay.
The film is set just after Orson and producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) had their admirable run in with the government over the censorship of the musical The Cradle Will Rock due to writer Marc Blitzstein’s affiliation to the Communist Party. This was a Federal Theatre Production; the project was one of FDR’s New Deal initiatives aimed at giving jobless men practical work during the Great Depression, however Blitzstein’s play had a pro-unionist message that did not sit well with the presiding administration and the theatre was locked and all the props seized provoking Welles and Houseman to hire an alternative venue out of their own pockets to stage an impromptu performance requiring some of the cast to deliver their lines from seats in the audience; the cause célèbre was documented in Tim Robbins’ 1999 movie of the same name.
After the incident both Welles and Houseman resigned from the Federal Theatre and formed the Mercury Players starting a repertory company including Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) many of whom would feature in most, if not all, of Welles future productions on stage, radio and screen. Their debut show was to be a modern dress version of Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar drawing a comparison to contemporary Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini; adapting the key scene featuring Cinna the Poet and having him brutally murdered not by an angry mob but a secret police force.
One of the film’s great strengths lies in showing a working theatre from both sides of the curtain. It also shines a light on Welles’ eccentric working methods, particularly the way in which he handled his fellow actors, seducing or inciting their very best performances out of them. It also depicts his dedicated dashing from one radio show to another, lending his vocal talents at the drop of a hat either as The Shadow or another random character part, to fund his own productions; apparently he hired an ambulance to beat the New York traffic as there was no law saying you had to be ill to travel in one!
Whilst it’s fair to say that due to Welles’ massive persona Christian McKay steals every scene he is in, Zac Efron and Claire Danes still have ample screen time to explore their mutual attraction in a series of well played “meet-cute” wisecracking scenes reminiscent of the screwball farces of the period. Director Linklater does remarkably well with a relatively low-budget and no-frills approach, the obvious area in which there has been no scrimping is in the script’s marvellous attention to historical detail, taking its time and never underestimating the attention span of the audience.
Given Zac Efron’s bankability there must have been a huge temptation to make creative compromises in order to reach a wider market, luckily the producers elected to make the movie in the Isle of Man, a tax haven, allowing them far greater artistic control but unfortunately limiting the distribution options and consequently the film has been seen by few people which is a great shame.