The James Clayton Column: An Auteur for Zac Efron

James has never really talked about Zac Efron before. But now he's found six directors that the High School Musical star should work with...

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you and no, you haven’t slipped into a strange, surreal alternate universe. You have read the words “Zac Efron” and “Me And Orson Welles” in the same sentence; this unexpected combination is not an error.

Efron is the blue-eyed star of High School Musical, known and loved by tweenage girls the world over. Orson Welles was the stage and screen impresario who, despite being something of an outcast in Hollywood, casts long shadows over every film studies curriculum that academics conjure up and has a stature that commands tremendous respect.

At first, the two big names don’t appear to be kindred brethren. With Efron starring in Richard Linklater’s new movie Me And Orson Welles, however, we may actually find that Disney’s boy wonder is maturing to the sort of acting ability and critical renown as the bold-voiced one who appeared in classics like The Third Man and Touch Of  Evil.

In the film, Efron plays a young thespian who encounters Welles and joins the cast of the 1937 New York production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It sounds slightly more sophisticated than High School Musical; this may be where we see Efron’s liberating leap from material like 17 Again to stuff as substantial and stimulating as Citizen Kane.

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Yet, appearing in a period film about proper thesps and the high-culture arena of Elizabethan theatre is not enough. If the young Mr. Efron is to well and truly shed his tweeny-pop poster boy past and establish a reputation as a well-rounded, respectable actor, he needs to follow in the footsteps of his role model, Leonardo DiCaprio.

DiCaprio’s ascent only really came about once Martin Scorsese took the actor under his wing and unleashed the very best of his talent that had previously been buried below the surface. Before Marty decided to dispense with DeNiro as his automatic ‘go-to-guy’ and cast DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon in Gangs Of New York, Leo was dismissed as the fringed drip who got dropped into the ocean at the end of Titanic.

Following great performances in The Aviator and The Departed that led to other excellent roles, DiCaprio is now praised as one of the most capable and compelling leading actors in Hollywood. Before Scorsese, it was hard to think of DiCaprio without seeing images of a ship sinking and little girls squealing at topless pictures of the heartthrob who played Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo. Now, DiCaprio’s name brings thoughts of award nominations, dramatic versatility and determined environmental campaigning. Leo has come a long, long way.

If Efron hopes to mature and make such great strides then he, too, requires a director to channel the raw essence that’s hiding behind those soppy blue eyes. What Efron needs is an auteur with whom he can create astounding films that will go down in cinema history. Which acclaimed idiosyncratic auteurs should the High School Musical hero seek out? Here are some collaboration ideas that could yield tremendous results…

Tim Burton

Johnny Depp must be exhausted of playing Burton’s key characters by now, so for a change the young idol could take the place of the leading actor of Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. At the mercy of the Corpse Bride director and his distinctive Victoriana-tinged gothic style, Efron would surely shake off his wholesome all-American teen image and find the darker depths under the sweet exterior. After several main parts in weird and wondrous movies that demand a variety of eccentric hairstyles, Efron would be hailed by critics and horrify all those who go googly-eyed at the site of his fringe.

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Efron goes oddball: critical acclaim.

Woody Allen

By hooking up with the brains behind Annie Hall, Efron would, no doubt, find his days of mulling through gloopy teen romances at an end. Instead, he’d be appearing in films about real adult relationships and all the sexual quandaries and confusion they entail. No more über-teen-dream posturing for our young idol now. Under Allen he gets to grow up and become a flappable neurotic nerd with an insatiable sexual appetite who either needs a psychiatrist or a very patient Rabbi.

Efron agonises: critical acclaim.

John Woo

As Efron gets to scatter birds in one of Woo’s trademark ‘dove slo-mo’ shots, he casts off all kiddie associations and unleashes the tough action star within. It’s not all bad for fans of the handsome Mouseketeer, though, as all the slow-motion fight scenes ensure lingering images of his good looks. At least, his looks remain good until he gets shot to bits and is rendered a bloody, bullet-ridden mess in the stylish gun-fu sequences that the director of The Killer and Mission: Impossible 2 does so well.

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Efron’s ass capped: critical acclaim.

Pedro Almodóvar

The Spanish director specialises in female dramas, so maybe it’s time he placed Penelope Cruz to one side and tried his hand at making a film about a man. Enter the American youth as the perfect new muse for the auteur behind All About My Mother and Volver. What better way for Efron to shake off the High School Musical jock-strap images than by trying material about tough life choices, sexual desire and transvestitism?

Efron embraces cross-dressing: critical acclaim.

Werner Herzog

Efron could fill the void left by the deceased Klaus Kinski and come to recreate the antagonistic love/hate relationship that lies at the heart of the Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht director’s best work. It’d be hard on the teen hero, but should Herzog cast the 17 Again star as a representation of humankind’s insignificance against the power of nature and put him through the demands of hellish jungle shoots, he’d, no doubt, develop both personally and professionally. It would also be fun to see the Fitzcarraldo helmer make a non-documentary version of Grizzly Man and give the title part of Timothy Treadwell to Efron, enabling audiences the appealing sight of the guy getting eaten by an Alaskan bear.

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Efron gets eaten: critical acclaim.

David Lynch

By surrendering himself to the warped and twisted visions of the Mulholland Drive director -as unravelled by transcendental meditation and surreal dreams – Disneyfied Efron would definitely die. Out of all possible collaborations, the most promising would probably be with the creator of Eraserhead. I’d enjoy watching an incomprehensible Lynch flick take Efron into a dark and disconcerting nightmare world where he’s asked to look after a mutant baby that goes on to bite off his ear.

Efron unnerved by the unbearable subconscious horrors of the id: critical acclaim.

James’ previous column can be found here.


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