We’ve seen these kitschy images of waif children almost everywhere over the years. Loved by Warhol, they were never elevated into upper realms of art world and remain gauchely mainstream. In keeping with their mass appeal, the paintings now have a major Hollywood film made about them. However, it’s the true story of the iconic Big Eyes paintings which is far more startling and gripping than the film itself.
I was intrigued after seeing the film on New Year’s day and it’s taken me this long to finish my research and write this post but I’m glad I did and here it is.
Big Eyes Film
Let’s look first at the recent Tim Burton-directed film. It has good credentials; starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as the Keane couple. Kyrsten Ritter and Jason Schwartzman have minor supporting roles in this stylish low budget biopic (although $10 million still seems like a lot to me), while Lana Del Rey wrote the Golden Globes nominated song for the audio.
Writing team Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski, whose credits include Ed Wood, Man on the Moon and The People vs. Larry Flynt approached Burton about Margaret Keane’s story. Burton had already been in touch with Margaret for several years, commissioning paintings and aware of her extraordinary life story. This article from Juxtpoz captures the journey of the script and production, which began in 2003, towards the making of the film which was finally released in 2014.
Burton’s unmistakable directing style is largely absent and Big Eyes is surprisingly straight edged affair in comparison with the rest of his portfolio. His usual ensemble are absent; so no Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham-Carter here, which is a shame as I think they would have played well together as the warring couple. It’s still a thoroughly enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes or so, especially because this is the kind of story that you just couldn’t make up.
One sees only traces of Burton’s usual grotesquery in this film. The photo below is what Margaret, haunted by the tapestry of lies she is stitched into, sees or thinks she sees as she trails the gaudy supermarket aisles.
These edgy visions with ‘big eyes’ are a recurring theme; alarming and reminiscent of Repulsion except played out here in glorious technicolour, rather than stark black and white.
The story of Big Eyes is essentially the marriage of North Beach artists Walter and Margaret Keane gone bad. Rather than matrimony dismantled, it’s a Cinderella-like tale with Margaret as the put upon princess and Walter the ugly sister. This Life magazine article from 1965 shows the full blown architecture of his almighty big lie; that he was the artist of the Big Eyes paintings and not his long suffering wife, who was in fact toiling away 16 hours a day in secret. Not even her daughter saw her paint during this period as the home studio was locked. There is some justice; Margaret ends up triumphant when she and her ex husband meet in court two decades after their parting of ways, to settle claims of libel. Pitted against each other in a paint off to prove who is the authentic artist; Margaret wins while Walter whinges about shoulder pain leaving his canvas unmarked. It’s pretty comedic, childlike even, but true.
The subtext of the film is the emancipation of a woman. The time frame of events coincides with the rise of feminism but there is no real direct or even oblique reference to it as the Keanes lived in a self-created world. The adage ‘behind every successful man is a woman’ is bizarrely appropriate here but soon dissolves into the feminist trope ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ by the end of the film as the fraud is revealed. This scenario is by no means unique; Vivienne Westwood who I wrote about recently was in a similar predicament with her ex partner Mclaren which she chronicles in her latest book. Since the dawn of time, repressed women have taken on a male guise to overcome prejudice and subjugation. Joan of Arc, went to war as a man, Emily Brontë was published as a man, even J K Rowling hid behind her initials to avoid gender categorisation. Here though, it is Walter Keane who is the impostor and illusionist by design throughout. Walter Keane even published a vanity book about his work, which was supposedly written by art critic Eric Schneider who didn’t event exist. It was Tom Wolfe writing under a nom de plum, even rumours about Walter’s death in the 1980s were fake.
The real Big Eyes story
At the end of the film, there’s a photo of a very smiley Margaret Keane sitting with Amy Adams. It delighted me that she is living happily and painting. When I got home, I decided to find out a little bit more about her. It’s been a really interesting journey into not just her life and the legend of Big Eyes but all the people surround it.
The Walter-Margaret Keane story has been written about extensively in the media and by various parties involved directly or indirectly.
This People magazine archived article reports on the court case and the Walter-Margaret paint off in 1986 which secured retrieved Margaret’s reputation as creator of the paintings and secured her $4 million in damages which were never paid as Walter descended into alcoholism and bankruptcy.
It was this cover story about Keane the San Diego Reader in May 1992 which set the ball rolling for Big Eyes to become a screen play. I found it after searching online extensively. It’s nestled away in the scanned magazine archived and definitely worth a read (I suggest you zone in by at least 200% to read this old scan). It’s penned by the controversial Feral House publishing owner and writer Adam Parfrey.
Incidentally, Parfrey is a fascinating character and you can read an interesting feature on Luke Ford’s blog (Luke Ford is also something of a crazy cat blogger-Alexandar-Technique-public-speaker).
Walter’s Daughter Susan Keane
Although estranged from her father for many years prior to his death in 2000, Susan has taken to social media to decry the Big Eyes movie and how it besmirches her father’s truth. You can read about it her side of his story here. I wonder what a psychologist/psychiatrist would make of this. It’s very hard not to view Susan’s version of events as something that she was primed to believe from a young age; making her complicit in her naiviete. It’s pretty sad but I don’t doubt for a second she believes it is true.
It’s hard to deny that the Big Eyes paintings hold a lingering fascination; captivating as they maybe, it’s the story behind the canvas which holds me in where the real drama lies.
Some Keane links if you want more:
Keane Eyes Gallery – Margaret’s work is all here
Big Eyes Selfie – upload a photo and create your own Big Eyes selfie
Vice article on Citizen Kane with exerpt
Medieros - blog about 60/70s other big eye artists
Keane – SFgate obit