Knight at the Movies Archives
Teen sensation Zac Efron spreads his wings a tad and a lush masterpiece returns
In the ongoing effort to shed his squealing teen fan base, teen heartthrob Zach Efron spreads his wings a tiny bit in the likeable
coming of age comedy Me and Orson Welles. The film, set in 1937 when Welles had conquered radio and was looking to solidify
his theatrical reputation with a Broadway sensation before heading out to Hollywood, isn’t much different from a lot of other
backstage comedies (Mrs. Henderson Presents, An Awfully Big Adventure, etc.) and features the requisite cast of eccentric theatre types,
plenty of after rehearsal shenanigans, and a measure of familiar, comfortable insight about life upon the Wicked Stage.
Efron plays Richard Samuels, a 17 year-old high school teen with acting dreams, drop dead dreamy looks, a modicum of talent and
plenty of chutzpah. When by chance he meets the renowned boy wunderkind Orson Welles (played with genuine finesse by film
newcomer Christian McKay) Richard, whom Welles immediately dubs “Lucius,” talks his way into a small role in Welles’ eagerly
anticipated production of “Julius Caesar.”
Cutting class, Richard soaks up the reflected glory of being in the presence of the Master who dazzles the kid with his outrageous
behavior as he goes about his frenetic schedule of radio appearances, rehearsals for the play, socializing with the jet set, and of
course, womanizing like mad. Richard immediately forms a crush on pretty Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), Welles’ production assistant,
and his carnal dreams come true when he ends up spending the night with her.
Though Sonja finds Richard’s offer to show her “wealth, fame, and adventure – at the movies” endearing she’s also a pragmatist
with her own career agenda and isn’t about to lose her head over the good looking kid – especially with the promise of a Hollywood
career and success in the offing. Cocky and aware of his matinee idol good looks, Richard then overplays his hand and finds himself
locked in a contest of wills with Welles himself just as the play is about to premiere.
Efron has the same breathtaking good looks of Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor, the matinee idols who were making millions swoon
in 1937, the time of the film’s action. He looks smashing in the tailored clothes of the 30’s era (the costumes seem to have been
tailored by Ralph Lauren) and during a vivid, thrilling recreation of Welles’ daring production of “Julius Caesar,” prettily sings a poetic
little song that will make the little girls (and gay boys) in the audience swoon (though it’s not historically right for the 30s period –
the age of the crooner) but McKay and the cast of crack supporting actors easily act rings around him (McKay does the seemingly
impossible – he humanizes Welles).
Me and Orson Welles, based on a novel and directed by Richard Linklater (exploring yet another film genre) is a nice piece of fluff that
will be particularly enjoyed by those with a taste for the era when the theatre was rife with Teutonic personalities, both behind the
curtain and onstage. Melodramatic and hammy (“Let’s rip their throats out,” Welles commands his actors in a pre-show speech), the
movie taps into the fun of watching this bygone theatrical era (the sets, costumes, and soundtrack add to the pleasure). Though it
won’t exactly set Efron’s fan base aflame (he remains clothed throughout) and certainly won’t cause anything akin to the hysteria
that greeted the High School Musical franchise, he holds his own with the more seasoned actors and can safely advance up the next
rung of the ladder after having successfully headlined such an amiable little indie film as this.
There never has been quite another film like 1948’s The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece that
focuses on the fate of a beautiful ballerina trapped between two men, the terrifying dance impresario who has given her stardom and
her lover, the brilliant young composer of the title work who wants her to throw that stardom away.
The film, made in England, was an international sensation in part due to its color drenched cinematography and the tremendous
Oscar winning score by Brian Easdale which includes the justly famed 18-minute title ballet. The movie brought instant acclaim for
Moira Shearer, the ravishing, graceful redhead who plays Victoria “Vicky” Page, the emotionally torn ballerina who dazzles everyone
with her beauty, charm and incredible dancing ability.
The movie also features a legendary performance by Anton Walbrook as the impossibly stern ballet impresario Boris Lermontov who
will brook no resistance to his dictates. Sophisticated to an insane degree, dressed in impeccably tailored suits, silk pajamas and
robe, lounging in a velvet Russian blouse, Boris’ insane obsession with Vicky has everything to do with her talent and his own ideal of
a perfect relationship – a partnership based on a shared love of dance and an obviously nonsexual one. The carnal fulfillment that
Vicky shares with the young composer – another discovery by Boris – is considered the ultimate betrayal.
What remains unspoken but bubbling under the surface as the film nears its conclusion is that Boris is a deeply closeted gay man
whose thwarted desires have been transferred to Vicky, his intended Beloved (several of the other prominent characters – the
choreographer, the leading male dancer, etc. are also clearly gay though they obviously don’t experience Boris’ self-loathing). The
price that all the characters pay – in part due to Boris’ unnamed closeted status – is enormously steep and gives the film for
discerning queer audiences a distinct frisson.
The Red Shoes has long been championed by film critics and archivists and should also be given its place, in my estimation, as a part
of gay cinema history. Director Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Powell's widow) have personally
supervised an eye popping new, restored 35mm print which will be shown at the Music Box Theatre beginning on Dec. 11. Highly
Me and Orson Welles-The Red Shoes
12-9-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
CHECK OUT OTHER KATM FILM REVIEWS IN THE ARCHIVES