‘Orson Welles’: a decade’s saddest flop?

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The gulf between movie hits and flops is wider than ever these days.

There was no good reason for Richard Linklater’s charming 2009 bio-pic “Me and Orson Welles” to be one of that year’s most notable failures. It’s a very entertaining look back at Orson Welles as he was preparing his legendary modern-dress stage production of “Julius Caesar,” with a fantastic performance by Christian McKay (above) as the genius director a few years before he made movie history with “Citizen Kane” (1941).

The “me” in the movie — a high school drama student who lucks into a small role in “Julius Caesar” — is played by former teen idol Zac Efron (below), who is very good in the movie.

The casting of Efron as Richard Samuels was one of those seemingly smart commercial moves that ended up backfiring on the producers of the film.

The hip art house crowd that loved earlier Linklater films such as “Slacker” (1991) and “Dazed and Confused” (1993) was put off by any film featuring the star of the Disney “High School Musical” series. (The movie came out just before Efron’s successful transition to adult roles.)

And, Efron’s teen girl following must have figured out in advance that this was a 1930s period piece in which Efron did not dance and sing. Efron was zacclearly a fine young actor but it took him a few more years to break out of his teen idol straitjacket (remember how long it took Tom Hanks to move beyond “Bosom Buddies”?)

“Me and Orson Welles” was well reviewed in most quarters — and some industry people thought there was a chance that the acting branch of the Motion Picture Academy might have nominated McKay in the supporting actor division — but it took more than a year for the movie to be picked up for theatrical distribution.

Linklater and the cast appeared at a Toronto Film Festival premiere in 2008 where none of the major studio art house subsidiaries expressed any interest in the picture (a shocking event considering the subject matter and Linklater’s status within the independent film movement).

“Me and Orson Welles” was gone from most U.S. theaters in a few weeks, but it is definitely worth seeking out on DVD.

Joe Meyers

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