Me And Orson Welles
“And who ARE you? Is that who you WANT to be?”
Written by: Robert Kaplow
Orson Welles has always kind of been a hero of mine. The guy directed arguably the greatest movie ever made at the age of 26, effectively changing the way people viewed cinema. Before that he had revolutionized theatre by staging Shakespeare in something besides tights and frilly cravats. When the government tried to shut down his production of The Cradle Will Rock, he took to the streets…literally. He took his entire audience out into the streets.
So, when I was parusing a discount book store and saw this book, I knew that I had to read it. I had never heard of it, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into. But it was short enough (about 230 pages) that, if I liked it, I could breeze right through it. I was actually going to put it off for a little while, but then I heard that it had been optioned for a film adaptation.
Ok. Fine, Hollywood. You’re going to MAKE me read this short book about one of my heroes. Twist my fuckin’ arm.
Richard is a 17-year-old kid in New York City in 1937. He really, really, really wants to be an actor and absolutely knows that he can do it. All he needs is a push in the right direction.
So, when he is walking the streets and stumbles on the new Mercury Theatre, led by a 22-year-old Orson Welles (who had already made quite the name for himself on radio and with his Voodoo Macbeth in Harlem), that push finally came. Welles hired him for the small role of Lucius in his updated version of Julius Ceasar that took place in a Fascist state.
Of course, there’s a girl. And of course there is love. And of course there is Joseph Cotton. (Ah, good ol’ Joe Cotton. One of my favorite actors of the era.)
But most of all, there is Orson Welles. Kaplow’s version of Welles is what so many people think was Orson Welles. He’s big. He’s brash. And he’s a complete asshole. He steps on everybody to get to the top and anyone who goes against him is worse than fired. A don’t you DARE come between Welles and a young lady. And CERTAINLY never mention his wife!
And that may be the problem here. Everyone is Kaplow’s IDEA of who they really were. Sure, they’re nearly fully realized characters, but they’re almost too BIG to be real. Even though I’ve read biographies and seen movies about Welles, I never believed that this version of Welles was the one that really existed. Sure, everything in the last paragraph was absolutely true. Welles was a douchebag who probably never should have been as much of a genius as he was. And that douchebaggery eventually (and quickly) was his downfall. His hubris is what buried Citizen Kane and got The Magnificant Ambersons (which is the book that he’s reading in this story) taken away from him by RKO. In effect, it ruined his career and made him take on projects that he had no interest in for the rest of his life.
None of this is to say that I didn’t like the book. Actually, I was very entertained by it. I think that if it had been much longer, I would have been annoyed by the near-caricatures of all of these famous people. I would have had enough of the constant fighting between Welles and John Houseman and painting Cotton as a guy who would sleep with anything with two legs and no dick.
As it was, though, I had a lot of fun reading it. Richard was a slightly cocky kid with a big heart who knew that there was no reason for him to be there. He just made the best of it and hoped for the best. He actually loved Sonja, the opportunistic young lady who took him under her wing more than Welles ever did. Or at least he thought he did. He also loved New York and the entire theatre scene of the late Depression.
Although, his fights with his mom were a little stereotypical New York Jewish Family for me at times.
As I was reading the book, I kept thinking of Shia LeBeauf in the lead role. It would finally be a role for him where he wasn’t squeezed into something that he had no business being in. A semi-cocky Jewish kid who had talent and heart to burn.
Of course, Hollywood didn’t see it that way. Apparently, while they made a fairly good choice of having Richard Linklater direct, Zac Efron is playing Richard. Fuck that pretty boy. Why is he going to play a NYC Jewish kid in 1937? That just doesn’t make sense. If ever there was a gentile little boy, it’s him.
Oh well. I await the movie to see what they do to it. I can’t say that I highly recommend the book…but I do recommend it if you just want a quick, fun something to read during a break in the more heady stuff. The descriptions of Welles’ Ceasar are worth it alone. There’s no real visual record of what it looked like except for maybe a few snapshots, so this may be as close as we get to “seeing” it.