Given the long odds against success, everybody in show biz could use a mentor, somebody to teach them the ropes and send them on their way. In a perfect world those lessons are delivered with loving care and remembered fondly for a lifetime.
In the real world, they tend to be delivered in a way that leaves the mentee as dazed and confused by his/her collision with the mentor as you can imagine.
Either way, you learn, and we have two coming-of-age stories to drive the point home: 2009’s “Me and Orson Welles” versus 1982’s “My Favorite Year.”
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Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name, “Me and Orson Welles” tells the story of Richard Samuels, a 1937 vintage teenager who just happens to bump into Orson Welles a week before his ambitious Broadway debut playing Brutus in “Julius Caesar” at his soon-to-be-famous Mercury Theater. Welles, at the time, was only 22 himself (yet the English actor Christian McKay plays him as so much older in this film), but he was the boy genius and he uses Richard up and spits him out by the end. It’s a charmer, this film, and my wife Jackie and I saw it at the Director’s Guild screening in November with a terrific Q-and-A with its director who basically acknowledged that it’s a love letter to actors and the theater.
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The Defending Champion
“My Favorite Year” made a star out of Mark Linn-Baker (if you can call getting cast on his own sitcom, “Perfect Strangers,” as stardom). He plays budding comedy writer Benjy Stone who’s working on one of those ’50s comedy-variety shows when Hollywood legend Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) is booked. O’Toole got an Oscar nomination for his performance as Swann, a comic drunk of epic proportions who Benjy has to watch over and make sure is fit for air when the live show arrives. Adventures ensue. Horse rides through Central Park (see below), home meals with the parents, drunken reveries in hotel bathtubs, that kind of thing…
The stars are reversed in these two films. In “Me and Orson Welles,” it’s teen sensation Zac Efron who is the star you’ve heard of, playing Richard, and Christian McKay, an actor you’ve never heard of, playing Welles (and getting lots of award attention so far this year). In “My Favorite Year,” it was unknown Mark Linn-Baker playing the young kid and huge star Peter O’Toole playing the liquored up superstar actor. Quickly now, the highlights: Zac Efron’s good looks and talent at singing and dancing should not be held against him; he does not suck at all as an actor, in fact, he’s excellent, almost as good as McKay who is a revelation as the cruel game-playing Welles and the equally wonderful Claire Danes; but O’Toole did get that Oscar nom and Linn-Baker did get that sitcom so they were pretty good, too.
The tone of “My Favorite Year” is broadly comedic, slightly sillier than a Neil Simon play. “Me and Orson Welles,” in contrast, feels like heightened reality, a window into the world of New York theater in those last years before World War II.
The real difference is the direction. Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”) simply directs the hell out of “Me and Orson Welles,” giving it a look and feel of authenticity, importance and cool while Richard Benjamin’s work on “My Favorite Year” is static, over-lit and generally not-that-good.
A great plan would be to re-make “My Favorite Year” with Richard Linklater directing. Until they do that, though, Linklater’s latest effort is going to take the championship belt away from that ’80s film which is funny in spurts, engaging occasionally, but doesn’t hold up to modern sensibilities. “Me and Orson Welles” is the winner now and if you check out the film in a quarter century, it’s still going to hold up nicely. Everyone I know who’s seen it so far thought it was fun and kind of sweet and — for me — it’s the winner by knock-out in this Smackdown. If you miss it in the theaters, rent the DVD. You won’t be sorry.