In the annals of popular art, the work and life of Margaret Keane stands as a singular tale, on the canvas and off. While the images she created are universally familiar, little is commonly known about the woman behind them and her tumultuous backstory.
A new biopic by Tim Burton is about to change that. Big Eyes tells the story of the painter whose portraits of wistful children peering forlornly off the canvas through saucer-like orbs became the definition of kitsch in American art.
Keane herself lived a life that was often nearly as tragic as her sad-eyed subjects. Born in 1927, her work caught the public imagination in the early 1960’s, as reproductions of her childhood images became ubiqutous in American living rooms; her portraits in the same style of celebrities such as Natalie Wood, Liberace and Jerry Lewis widely featured in magazines of the day.
There was a dark side to the empire however. As the reknown of the Keane images spread, Margaret’s husband Walter claimed sole credit for the creations, a claim that stood until 1970 when, five years after the end of their marriage, Margaret finally told the world they were her work alone. Her assertion led to a lengthy court battle; in 1986 she was finally granted permission to display the paintings under her own name.
Today, at age - Keane lives in Napa Valley, California, where she has become an ardent Jehovah’s Witness and continues to paint at age 87, although, according to her website, “Margaret Keane’s works now feature happy children, animals, or both, all with her signature large-eyes, in delightful places and situations.”
For Tim Burton, the telling of Keane’s tale is a return to familiar territory. One of Burton’s main preoccupations throughout his career has been the plight of misfit artists, daring to dream outrageously grandiose visions that confine them to the margins of polite society.
In the past, he filmed a biopic on the life of cult director Ed Wood, and his fictional films have portrayed outrageous characters from Edward Scissorhands to Willie Wonka and Sweeney Todd — as over-sized artistic personalities.
In Big Eyes, Amy Adams stars as the iconic painter. The film also features Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane, along with Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwartzman.
Although it doesn’t open until Christmas Day, the movie is already attracting Oscar buzz, particularly for Adams’ performance in the lead role. The film reunites Burton with Ed Wood, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; that previous collaboration turned Wood into an Oscar contender, ultimately winning for Best Supporting Actor and Best Make-up.