From executive producer Michael Moore and filmmaker Mark Cousins, The Eyes of Orson Welles brings vividly to life the passions, politics and power of the brilliant 20th-century showman, and explores how the genius of Welles still resonates today in the age of Trump, more than 30 years after his death.
Granted exclusive access to hundreds of private drawings and paintings by Orson Welles, filmmaker Mark Cousins dives deep into the visual world of this legendary director and actor, to reveal a portrait of the artist as he’s never been seen before – through his own eyes, sketched with his own hand, painted with his own brush.
Orson Welles was a towering 20th century icon of screen and stage. His films as a director and actor, such as Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight, are among the greatest and most innovative ever made. He was a genius who hobnobbed with presidents, campaigned for progressive politics and loved some of the world’s most beautiful women. He sits alongside the likes of Picasso, Chaplin and Monroe as one of the most famous cultural figures of the past hundred years.
But one aspect of his life and art has never been discussed. Like Akira Kurosawa and Sergei Eisenstein, Welles loved to draw and paint. As a child prodigy, he trained first as an artist. But a solo drawing trip to Ireland in his mid-teens took his career in a whole new direction. He talked his way onto the stage at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, and instant stardom followed. Yet Welles continued to draw and paint throughout his life, for his own pleasure, and his ground-breaking film and theatre work was profoundly shaped by his graphic imagination.
When he died over 30 years ago, he left behind hundreds of character sketches, set designs, visualisations of unmade projects, illustrations to entertain his children and friends, doodles in the margins of personal letters, and images of the people and places that inspired him. Most of these have been locked away since his death, and many have never been made public.
Now, for the first time, Welles’ daughter Beatrice has granted Mark Cousins access to this treasure trove of imagery, to make a film about what he finds there. These drawings and paintings are a window onto the world of Welles, and a vivid illustration of his creativity and visual thinking.
The Eyes of Orson Welles is a film for the cinema which avoids the techniques of conventional TV documentaries. With his trademark lyrical voiceover, Cousins presents new digital scans of the artworks, and specially-made animations which bring vividly to life the magic of Welles’s graphic world. The animations are the work of graphic designer Danny Carr. These are intercut with clips from Welles’ films, recordings of Welles’ radio performances and TV interviews, and encounters with Beatrice Welles, telling the personal stories of the images.
The film is told in three central acts – “Pawn”, “Knight” and “King” – with an epilogue on the theme of “Jester”. The “Pawn” sequence looks at Welles’ politics, his sympathy with ordinary people, those images that deal with the modesty of human beings – children, decent people who are not in positions of power. The “Knight” section looks at Welles’ obsession with love, his romances with the likes of Dolores del Rio and Rita Hayworth, and his quixotic attachment to what he himself saw as outmoded chivalric ideals. The “King” section looks at Welles’ fascination with power, and its corruption, through illustrations that deal with figures such as Macbeth, Henry V, Kane and Welles himself – the epic mode of human beings, the law makers and abusers. The “Jester” epilogue explores the images that are about fun or mockery, with a surprising intervention by Welles himself.
Cousins also travels to key locations in Welles’ life – New York, Chicago, Kenosha, Arizona, Los Angeles, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Ireland – to capture beautiful images which are relevant to and locate the artworks, and serve to dramatise some of the defining moments in Welles’ career and personal life.
In the end, this essay film is about much more than the drawings and paintings. Just as Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbooks show his passions, his changes of mind, his trains of thought and visual thinking, so this film is an encounter with the imagination of this great artist, who extended cinema, was profoundly political, engaged with questions about power, existentialism, memory, destiny, filliation, psychology, space and light. These ingredients make The Eyes of Orson Welles not only a portrait of a great man, but an account of the 20th Century, and a meditation on the continuing relevance of his genius in what Mark describes as these “Wellesian” times.
The Eyes of Orson Welles will be released in cinemas nationwide on 17th August. In addition, from 2nd August until 23rd September, the public will have a unique opportunity to see Orson Welles’ drawings and sketches for the first time, in an exclusive exhibition at Summerhall, Edinburgh.