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Toronto Film Fest: Zac Efron & Orson Welles, together for the first time

September 6, 2008 | 12:22 am

Acquisitions teams were out in full force at the Friday night world premiere of Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles."

Arriving not just in single numbers, but rather in entire teams, representatives from Lionsgate, Miramax, Focus Features, The Weinstein Co., Sony, Paramount and numerous other companies were all hustling to get into the Ryerson Auditorium. One observer quipped, "it would be easier to just write down who's not here."

Adding to the feeling of excitement outside the auditorium before the screening was a press line packed with glitzy television outlets that would presumably not turn out in such numbers for, say, the new Dardenne Brothers film.

No, they were there for the actor playing the "me" in the film's title, "High School Musical" heartthrob Zac Efron. As he exited his car upon arrival, peals of squealing delight rippled their way back through a crowd of waiting young fans. In drainpipe trousers and a slim-cut suit jacket, Efron looked every bit the safely handsome object of affection, and in person his bangs have such a distinctive suspended architecture, sculpted down and over, that even Rem Koolhaas would marvel.

Receiving a rousing ovation when introduced before the picture, Richard Linklater brought out first Claire Danes, in a slinky-tight dress and teeteringly high heels. Then Linklater introduced Christian McKay, who plays Welles, promising, "You don't know Christian yet, but you're about to." Finally, out came Efron to a stroboscopic burst of flashbulbs from all manner of digital cameras. Both Danes and Efron spoke briefly, each noting that they were seeing the film for the first time as well.

Adapted by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from the novel of historical fiction by Robert Kaplow, the film tells the story of Welles' tumultuous 1937 theatrical production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," which he modified into a warning against fascism. It is a surprisingly rousing and loving tribute not only to the peculiar genius of Welles, but to show-people of all stripes.

The film features not only tantalizing glimpses of the finished production itself, but also amusing backstage insight into its genius, as well as the working conditions of The Mercury Theater run by Welles and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). McKay is genuinely astounding in his portrayal of Welles, pulling no punches in making him seem an egomaniacal, credit-hogging narcissist, yet somehow still winning with a devil-may-care charisma that brings out the best in others.

Danes, as shot by cinematographer Richard Pope, pops off the screen with hair like spun sunshine, a pleasant change from the flat, affectless performances she frequently turns in. Efron handily holds things together as the young upstart who stumbles into a small part and gains a modicum of entry into Welles' world.

Charming and freewheeling, the film seemed to play well even to the younger elements of the crowd, presumably not versed in the intricacies of the 1930s New York theatrical scene. The single biggest laugh of the film likely came from a simple tribute to "The Third Man" as the character of Joseph Cotten (played by James Tupper) emerged from a shadowy doorway a la Harry Lime.

Perhaps nothing better signified the film's success with the crowd than the very question of the post-screening Q&A, about the part played by Efron. From somewhere near the front of the stage, a distinctly tween-ish female voice asked, "The character of Richard, is he, like, a real person?"

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Actors Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Zac Efron and Director Richard Linklater arrive for the Toronto premiere of "Me and Orson Welles." Wire Image.