There are not one but two legends of Orson Welles, overlapping but contradictory. In the first, a brilliant wunderkind is undermined by studio skulduggery and a certain naiveté, never fulfilling his exorbitant talent; in the second, that same wunderkind is a boozy blowhard who betrays his talent with alcohol, easy pleasures and a fatal lack of artistic rigor. Both bear some resemblance to the director of “Citizen Kane,” but alone, neither is enough to convey the vastness of the larger-than-life character.
Welles died in 1985, but he has found a strange afterlife in other directors’ films. He has become a figure representing a disparate array of irreconcilable traits -- unimpeachable artistic integrity, youthful brilliance, the tragedy of talent squandered -- in a host of films that include him as a character. Richard Linklater’s newly released “Me and Orson Welles,” in which Zac Efron plays a teenage actor cast in Welles’ 1937 production of “Julius Caesar,” is only the latest in the motley assortment of posthumous Wellesiana.
Like Charlie Chaplin, with whom he shares a similar fascination for contemporary filmmakers, Welles was both star and director, joining disparate talents into a unique brand of genius. Never entirely comfortable with the notion of artistic extraordinariness, these films mostly seek to bring Welles back down to earth by implanting a kernel of future dissolution into his biggest successes. Their Welles is both superman and sad sack, diminished by the same traits that elevate him above the undistinguished crowd.
“Ed Wood” (1994), Tim Burton’s black comedy about the terror and ecstasy of filmmaking, adopts Welles as a touchstone and secret mentor. Johnny Depp’s Wood, generally acknowledged to be the worst director of all time, is frustrated at his own lack of Wellesian precocity: “Orson Welles was only 26 when he made ‘Citizen Kane.’ I’m already 30!” When Wood, approaching the nadir of a dismal film shoot, unexpectedly runs into Welles (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) at Hollywood hangout Musso & Frank, the directors -- one brilliant, one brilliantly inept -- bond over the quixotic nature of the medium they serve.
“I’m supposed to do a thriller at Universal,” Welles spits, “but they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican.” (Welles, of course, is speaking of his undisputed late-noir classic of 1958, “Touch of Evil.”) Welles has become St. Orson, patron saint of filmmakers, stiffening their spines and angling their eyes to the horizon of posterity: “Dreams are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
Tim Robbins’ underrated period picture “Cradle Will Rock” (1999), by contrast, requires a few good whipping boys to fend off accusations of New Deal leftist-utopian softness. “Cradle’s” Altman-esque roundelay turns Welles into the designated representative of fatuous artistic vanity. In a film generously stocked with star turns, Welles (Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen) is one of the few not played by an immediately recognizable performer. This Welles is a boozy tyrant, a boy genius already hearing the chimes at midnight for his future as a has-been: “How long do you think you can whore your talent before you’re used up and unwanted?” another character asks of him.
“Ed Wood” gestures toward the late success of “Touch of Evil”; “Cradle,” taking place before “Kane” is even in the can, points to Welles’ gruesome late career as a commercial pitchman. “Cradle” cannot summon the energy to despise the impish Welles. Instead, it mocks him, old before his time, a drunken master of ceremonies wasted before he has spent even a fraction of his talent.
The HBO film “RKO 281" (1999), written by John Logan (“The Aviator”) and directed by Benjamin Ross, about the making of “Citizen Kane,” synthesizes these personas -- Welles as giant and Welles as self-destructive martinet -- making the now-familiar argument that the director, no less than his ostensible subject William Randolph Hearst (played by James Cromwell), was a Kane-esque figure of towering contradictions. Liev Schreiber’s Welles is a boy wonder in embryo, studying the craft of filmmaking with “Kane” mentors like screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland.
“RKO 281" (the title refers to the studio designation for “Kane’s” production) takes pleasure in Welles’ rapid growth as a filmmaker, cribbing many of its own shots from “Kane,” as if to remind us that this film, like countless others, is in Welles’ eternal debt. But there is more to Welles than the tyro; playing with a deck of cards, attempting to pull the ace of spades and never succeeding, this Welles is already the conjurer who has lost his magic touch, even at 26 years of age.
At the end of the film, Welles and Hearst face off, as we knew they would, and Hearst gets the last word, his pronouncement as much curse as declaration: “My battle with the world is almost over. Yours, I’m afraid, has just begun.”
“Me and Orson Welles” returns some of the missing magic, offering a Welles who turns a lighted match into a perfect red rose to bowl over a pretty production assistant. Linklater the autodidact admires Welles for his ability to brilliantly employ others’ material.
Reading Efron’s star-struck actor an excerpt from Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” (which he would soon adapt into a film), Welles dazzles the audience, and thoroughly discomfits his fellow actors, by unexpectedly interpolating the same speech into a scripted radio performance.
Played by British actor Christian McKay, who bears a remarkable resemblance to the young Orson, Welles is a magnificent raconteur and a petty tyrant, all at once. To offer a Shakespearean analogue, this Brutus is an amalgam of Henry V’s bombast and Iago’s cruelty. “I am Orson Welles,” he darkly reminds “Caesar’s” cast, “and everyone here stands as an adjunct to my vision.”
Welles was the oddest of great men -- a genius who depended on the contributions of others to achieve his forbidding visions, and resented his need. “Me and Orson Welles” neither admires nor abhors him, preferring to marvel at his untrammeled force of life.
“How the hell do I top this?” Welles chuckles to himself as he basks in the roar of applause on “Caesar’s” opening night, the camera pulling in on a man with limitless ambition and the desire to remake the world in his image. The future beckons him, and we bask in its reflected glow, no matter what we may know of what is yet to come.