By DENNIS LIM
RICHARD LINKLATER is keen to point out that his new film, “Me and Orson Welles,” is not a biopic. For starters, he said in a recent phone interview: “Biopics are the lamest genre. No one should attempt them anymore.”
What’s more, when it comes to a figure as protean and elusive as Welles, there are obvious complicating factors. Welles was not only a habitual fabulist — “the most unreliable narrator of his own life,” Mr. Linklater said — but also an outsize subject for the projections of others. (“I drag my myth around with me,” he told Kenneth Tynan.) His early masterpiece, “Citizen Kane” (1941), which for many came to define and haunt him, is a fittingly prismatic take on the perils of biography, one that leads its reporter character to conclude, “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.”
Based on a young-adult novel by Robert Kaplow, “Me and Orson Welles,” which opens on Wednesday, attempts nothing so lofty as an explanation of a life. It restricts itself to a few days in the garrulous company of a 22-year-old Welles, already a theater and radio star, a force of nature at the height of his productivity.
The year is 1937, and Welles (played by Christian McKay, a British stage actor with only one previous film credit) is fresh off his triumphant all-black staging of “Macbeth” and a few months shy of appearing on the cover of Time magazine. The wide-eyed perspective comes from the fictional “me” of the title, a teenage theater buff (Zac Efron) who stumbles into a bit part in the modern-dress version of “Julius Caesar” staged by the Mercury Theater, founded by Welles and John Houseman.
“His myth was still in creation,” Mr. Linklater said of the heady period covered in “Me and Orson Welles.” “You can see whatever you want there. You can see all the genius, or you can see future tragedy.” He acknowledged that any portrayal of Welles is bound to be something of a lightning rod. Because so many film lovers have “a special relationship with Welles,” he said, “to depict him is to risk interfering with their preconceptions or theories.”
The “battle over Orson Welles,” to use the phrase of the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, has been raging since before Welles’s death in 1985, in a series of biographies and critical studies that range from apologias to hatchet jobs (with a greater number landing toward the negative end of the spectrum).
In grappling with an artist who revolutionized every medium he worked in but spent his final decades as a Hollywood outcast and a pop-culture punch line, Welles’s biographers — Barbara Leaming, David Thomson and Simon Callow, to name just a few — differ on whether he was a radical genius who fell victim to a callous and conservative system or a self-destructive failure who squandered his abundant gifts. In the critical arena Pauline Kael’s 1971 New Yorker polemic “Raising Kane,” which positioned the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as the main creative force behind “Citizen Kane,” prompted impassioned rebuttals from, among others, Mr. Rosenbaum, Joseph McBride and Peter Bogdanovich.
Aspects of Welles’s life and art are still coming to light — no surprise given the amount of unfinished business. There is a growing body of research on his incomplete work, like the Brazilian epic “It’s All True” and “Don Quixote,” a lifelong obsession. His oldest daughter, Chris Welles Feder, has just published a memoir, “In My Father’s Shadow,” which movingly recounts her relationship with a frequently absent father. Kimberly Reed’s recent “Prodigal Sons” is a dysfunctional-family documentary with one stranger-than-fiction twist: Ms. Reed’s unstable adopted brother learns that he is the grandson of Welles and Rita Hayworth.
Public perception of Welles, Mr. Linklater noted, is not the same around the world. In the United States, where the specter of those ’70s wine commercials remains, “there’s a tragic, underachieving quality to Welles,” he said. But in Europe “they count five, six, seven masterpieces and the theater work and they go, cultural icon, incredible career. Americans are asking why there isn’t more.”
While the field of Welles scholarship continues to expand, there have been relatively few screen depictions of the man. Mr. Linklater, who at 49 has more completed features on his résumé than Welles, including studio hits (“The School of Rock”) and labor-of-love indies (“Before Sunset”), offered one possible explanation: “It’s an intimidating thing, obviously, as a filmmaker to go anywhere near Orson Welles.”
The Welles persona lends itself to jokey exaggeration. In Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” (1994), Orson (Jean Guérin) is a comic grotesque who shows up in the fantasy lives of two teenage girls. Tim Burton’s biopic of the “world’s worst director,” “Ed Wood” (1994), stages an amusing meeting between Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Wood (Johnny Depp), two put-upon visionaries exchanging industry war stories. (Mr. D’Onofrio went on to direct and star in a half-hour short, “Five Minutes, Mr. Welles,” about Welles learning his lines on the set of “The Third Man.”)
Even in an otherwise serious film like Tim Robbins’s “Cradle Will Rock” (1999), which recounts the Federal Theater Project’s heroic 1937 staging of a pro-labor musical, Welles (who directed the production, just a few months before the Mercury’s “Julius Caesar”) is played by Angus Macfadyen as a drunken buffoon.
Opting for relative restraint, actors like Liev Schreiber, in “RKO 281,” a 1999 HBO movie about the making of “Citizen Kane,” and Danny Huston, in “Fade to Black,” a 2006 thriller that imagines Welles at the center of a noirish murder mystery, have struggled to capture his charisma and bravado. (Mr. Huston’s father, the filmmaker John Huston, was a good friend of Welles, who appeared in several Huston films, including “Moby Dick,” and John Huston was the star of “The Other Side of the Wind,” a nearly complete but never released Welles feature.)
Mr. Linklater said he was mindful that a persuasive Welles, larger than life but not a caricature, would be a tricky balancing act. “I wouldn’t have done this movie if I couldn’t give Orson his due,” he said. He suspected that an unknown actor, while anathema to financiers (Mr. Linklater paid for the rights to Mr. Kaplow’s book, and the film was independently produced), would be his best bet. “That way the cinematic magic has a possibility of working,” he said.
In the spring of 2007 Mr. Kaplow tipped Mr. Linklater off to “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles,” a one-man show written by Mark Jenkins that had won acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was arriving in New York for an Off Broadway run. Mr. Linklater saw the play, in which Mr. McKay embodies Welles from his boy-wonder prime into frustrated old age, and knew right away he had found his Orson.
To prepare for his Welles roles Mr. McKay listened to hundreds of hours of interviews, trying to nail Welles’s singular basso profundo. But while he was alert to physical details — “For a long time after shooting,” he said, “the bloody eyebrows kept moving” — he also wanted to convey less tangible qualities, like his magnetism and infectious confidence.
A concert pianist before he turned to acting, Mr. McKay, 36, said he drew partly on his younger self, flashing back to a time when “I was that arrogant and totally believing in my ability.” Mr. Linklater called Mr. McKay “a Wellesian figure” in his own right: “He’s the kid who was told at age 4 that he was a genius.”
Welles awes, dwarfs and eventually betrays the “me” in “Me and Orson Welles,” and some might accuse the film of the usual Welles bashing. His assigned role in this coming-of-age tale, after all, is to school the callow hero in the cruel ways of the world. But when people called the Welles in his movie a monster, Mr. Linklater said he found himself defending him: “It’s his theater; he’s paying for it. It’s his arena, the same way that some boss who owns a company wouldn’t be challenged. But it freaks people out to see it in art because they have some notion that it should be democratic.”
“Welles was such a supernova,” he continued. “People think it’s not natural, so they do their part to reduce him: a regression to the mean. But the achievements are too great. You can try, but you can’t really bring him back to earth.”