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Melancholy-Pop: 'Big Eyes' Screenwriters Discuss Art, Commerce, and Margaret Keane

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In 2000, after five decades in and out of the art world and popular culture, I organized an exhibition of her work, "Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia," at Laguna Art Museum, where I was chief curator from 1999 to 2006, before coming to University of California, Riverside's ARTSblock. The exhibition documented the amazing journey of MDH Keane and the many other creators she inspired. The retrospective included Keane's original work, from her earliest beginnings to current output, as well as Keaneabilia from the classic 1960s. In addition to graphic work, a whole thrift store full of Keane and Keaneabilia memorabilia-figurines, dolls, and collector plates help demonstrate and celebrate the influence of the Keane waifs.

One of my main interests at the time in mounting the exhibition was an exploration of an artist who navigated the corridors of art and commerce early on in post-WWII society, even before Andy Warhol, and transforming one's name into a brand. It was in the context of a burgeoning number of artists who were beginning to do the same in the 1990s, such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Thomas Kinkade.

This article is written fifteen years later on the occasional of the release of the film "Big Eyes" on December 25, 2014. The film's screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, invited me to conduct an interview with Margaret Keane that is include in the screenplay's publication.

Catalog cover for the exhibition Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia presented at Laguna Art Museum in 2000. | Photo courtesy of Laguna Art Museum.]
Catalog cover for the exhibition Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia presented at Laguna Art Museum in 2000. | Photo: Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum.

The sad-eyed waifs with the oversized orbs first gained worldwide attention in the paintings of Margaret "MDH" Keane in the early 1960s. Mass-produced as prints in dime store frames with the trademark nameplate, the "Keane Eyes" soon covered living room walls throughout the free West, while Keane originals hung in the collection of movie stars, industrialists, and the United Nations. Of course, in the eyes of the high art world, the popular Keane paintings were derided as below kitsch, while the work of pop artist Andy Warhol would be lauded as the next big thing.

During the first wave of Keaneabilia, the waif paintings were credited to Margaret's husband, promoter and raconteur, Walter, while Margaret settled for second billing with her own series of canvases of Modigliani-esque, long-necked, mature women. Soon, a legion of Keane inspired imitators began churning out their own, often inspired, versions of big-eyed cherubs, stray animals, and even the adult works then credited to Margaret. These artists included Gig, Eve, Lee, Maio, and Franca, among others. The homage went beyond the dime store paintings to include knickknacks like statuettes and culminated in Hasbro's "Little Miss No Name," one of the most popular and creepy dolls of the decade.

With the dissolution of the Keane's marriage in 1965, Walter continued to claim credit for the waifs while Margaret continued her work. In 1970 Margaret began what would become a fourteen-year legal battle to determine the true creator of the famed eyes. Margaret finally triumphed when in a 1984 trial and paint-off, she turned out perhaps her most important waif while her onetime partner and nemesis, Walter, declined to participate. By this time, the body of work finally credited to MDH Keane had faded from the consciousness of popular American culture to the point of nostalgia.

Slowly Keane's work began to seep back into popular as well as critical acclaim. She opened a new gallery in San Francisco in the early 1990s, the city where her work first achieved fame. Those who remembered the images from the first wave could appreciate them again, and a whole new generation of fans began to uncover these curious gems while rummaging through thrift shops and swap meets. Now the popular images of the past have been adopted as cultural icons in a period with few icons of its own. Keane herself experienced a religious transformation, becoming a Jehovah's Witness, and for the first time the waifs were seen with smiles on their faces. In addition to Ms. Keane's continuing output, a number of artists in an emerging school based on popular cultural imagery have begun to incorporate the "big-eyes" into their work.

Ms. Keane's work is an expressive mix of seemingly authentic, psychological pain, tinged with a kitsch flavor from its mass production initiated by ex-husband Walter, and reinforced by imitators. Now younger artists and collectors are attracted to it for both reasons: the pain and the kitsch. These contradictions are explored by some of today's cutting edge artists such as Dave Burke, Mark Ryden, and Dani Tull.

"Big Eyes" director Tim Burton posing with Margaret Keane paintings. | Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
"Big Eyes" director Tim Burton posing with Margaret Keane paintings. | Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Keane's haunting waifs were considered the depth of bad taste by the art intelligentsia of her day. Keane has been rediscovered by a new generation, and her art has become increasingly collectible. Among Keane's collectors are film director Tim Burton, rock stars Marilyn Manson and Matthew Sweet, and comedian Jerry Lewis (one of the early fans). Her influence can be seen in the Marylyn Manson video "I Don't Like the Drugs, But the Drugs Like Me" (1999) or on the cover of Matthew Sweet's album, "In Reverse" (1999), and her paintings appear in such films as "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," "Sleeper," and "Wayne's World."

In an early episode of "Saturday Night Live" from the late 1970s, Jane Curtin, in her newswoman role, spoofed the big Picasso exhibition of the day by reporting from an alleged Keane exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With the passage of time, it may be Margaret Keane and the sad eyed waifs who have the final laugh.

The film, "Big Eyes" (2014), is directed by Tim Burton, whose recent films include "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) and "Dark Shadows" (2012), with a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also wrote "Ed Wood" (1994), also directed by Burton, and "The People VS. Larry Flynt" (1996). Their first success was with the popular "Problem Child" (1990) films before finding their niche with biopics on our society's outsiders, rather than on the usual suspects, like politicians, generals, and rebels with, rather than without, causes. It took them ten years to bring "Big Eyes" to the screen, during which time they turned down many projects. Now that "Big Eyes" is in release, their next project is the ten-hour miniseries, "American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson" (2015).

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in the film "Big Eyes." | Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in the film "Big Eyes." | Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

The Weinstein Company describes "Big Eyes" as the outrageous true story of one of the most epic art frauds in history. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, painter Walter Keane had reached success beyond belief, revolutionizing the commercialization of popular art with his enigmatic paintings of waifs with big eyes. The bizarre and shocking truth would eventually be discovered though: Walter's works were actually not created by him at all, but by his wife Margaret. The Keanes, it seemed, had been living a colossal lie that had fooled the entire world. A tale too incredible to be fiction, "Big Eyes" centers on Margaret's awakening as an artist, the phenomenal success of her paintings, and her tumultuous relationship with her husband, who was catapulted to international fame while taking credit for her work.

Margaret Keane agreed to sell Alexander and Karaszewski the rights to her life as well as her art. "It took us a full year to work it out the rights deal so Margaret would be comfortable," Alexander says. "We didn't want to do anything that was going to make her feel bad about the film. We had to earn her trust at all times."

Interview with "Big Eyes" co-screenwriter, Larry Karaszewski

Scott Alexander and Andy Warhol regarding the phenomenon of the Keanes: "I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it."

Portraits of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. | Photo courtesy of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
Portraits of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. | Photo: Courtesy of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

Tyler Stallings: I saw a preview of "Big Eyes" at Art Basel Miami this past December 2014. It was a surprise that the film was screened in that context since it's such a bastion of high art. Larry, after the screening you came up on stage with an art critic, Brian Boucher from "Art in America." There was some discussion between you two and then with questions from the audience discussing "high" and "low" art. Could you discuss a little more your thoughts about showing the film in the art fair's context? Also, I'm curious what your before and/or after screening discussions were with the art critic regarding the film, Keane's work, and the closing gap between high and low art?

Discussion after the preview screening of "Big Eyes" at Art Basel Miami, with Brian Boucher from Art in America on the left, actress Krysten Ritter, who plays Margaret's bohemian friend Dee-Ann, at the center, and Larry Karaszewski on the right. | Photo courtesy of Tyler Stallings.

Larry Karaszewski: I was very nervous bringing the film to Art Basel Miami. Showing it to a roomful of Terrance Stamps [who played New York Times art critic, John Canaday in the film] and Jason Schwartzmans [who played art gallery owner, Ruben, in the film, turning down Walter Keane's work in light of the reigning abstract modernism in the late 1950s]. How would they react? The Keanes were never accepted in this world. But five minutes in Miami I knew it would be fine. Walking around the galleries I realized something quite obvious -- that the lines between high art and low art has been decimated. Not to mention the balance between art and commerce. The first artist I ran into was Mr. Brainwash from the Banksy documentary" Exit Through a The a Gift Shop." I thought to myself, 'is he any less a con man then Walter Keane?' At the Keane Gallery you didn't exit through the gift shop, the gallery was the gift shop. I think going in to see the film many in that art crowd thought it would be campy or kitschy. But talking with them afterward I could tell they appreciated a film that took art and gallery issues seriously. The art is the plot of the film.

TS: In 2000, I organized the exhibition Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia at Laguna Art Museum, where I was chief curator at the time. I did so, in part, because I was and still am fascinated with artists who brand themselves to the point that museums and galleries are just one avenue for distributing their work to the public. Other means may include clothing, posters, and other items that are under their control directly. Andy Warhol is one of our most prominent examples in post-WWII. I feel that Juxtapoz magazine, which started publication in 1995, and was co-founded by artist Robert Williams, helped develop this phenomenon later by providing a voice for artists such as Shepard Fairey and Takashi Murakami.

My fascination originates with my own education and training occurring within an art world context in which capitalism was critiqued heavily. But, this all began to change with President Ronald Reagan's deregulation in the 1980s that continued into the 1990s, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the break up of the Soviet Union. In essence, capitalism won out over socialism, so to speak. Suddenly, a counterpart to capitalism had disappeared. I feel that this shifted the conversation in the contemporary art world quite a bit. It was no longer shameful to engage openly in commerce and popular culture. In fact, it has now gotten to the point that there are investment portfolios of art, traded like stocks, and even subscription databases, such as, where graph charts show highs and lows with sales for individual artists, including statements such as if you invested this much today then your dollar could be worth this amount down the line.

So, with all this said, I'm curious as to your perspective of the contemporary art world as cultural producers too, yet as one's whose works affects the world much more than visual art does today, that is, films.

Actor Jason Schwartzman playing art dealer Ruben, purveyor of abstract works, appalled by the success of the Keanes, in the film

LK: When Scott and I started the project, I could see the connection from Walter to Peter Max to Thomas Kinkade. Having a gallery in a mall, like with Kinkade, is a natural progression from what Walter was up to. But the more I thought about it, I realized that almost all art is commerce now. So I could then see the connection from Walter to Warhol to Koons and Murakami. Artists who don't make their own art! Walter could be open about what his peddling now. He could have his own Ted Talk.

Walter really invented the mass marketing of art. He wasn't accepted in galleries and by art critics so he built his own galleries, put out his own coffee table books. He figured out how to make the paintings so cheap that the average man could buy them and he totally revolutionized the art world. Certainly, people who came along later, like Max or Kinkade, borrowed from his playbook, and even Andy Warhol acknowledges stealing a little bit from Walter Keane's philosophy. But what drew us into the story is the secret behind it all: the paintings were his wife's and he manipulated her into letting him put his name on them and taking all the credit. We were totally fascinated and thought this was a great American story that hadn't been told.

What makes Walter such an interesting bad guy is that he doesn't understand why he's a bad guy. He can't understand why she's complaining. They're making so much money, they're a success, people are loving her paintings, she can paint all day long in their beautiful house, why does it matter that people know the truth?

TS: One of the greatest things about being a visual artist is that you get to retain control over your work for the most part. In "Big Eyes," I could really understand Margaret Keane's pain over feeling that the emotions behind her sad-eyed children was appropriated by Walter and then, even though she agreed to a silent partnership with Walter for ten years, that it was really just a product to sell by Walter. Her personal expression was comprised doubly.

So, in the case of your screenplays, I was fascinated to learn how much control, or at least participation that you had, due in part to focusing on eccentric characters. From what I've read, I understand that this is because of all the research that you both conducted on each person, then you became the automatic expert on that person, so you had to be kept on board, as opposed to being dismissed from your own screenplay. This is a story that a layperson like myself often hears about the bottom-line tactics from movie studios. Please elaborate more on this process.

LK: Scott and I have found that on these odd biographical films that we become much more a part of the production process then a screenwriter usually does in Hollywood - we are the historians and the fact checkers. We meet with production designers and costume people to show them the years of research we have accumulated. If actors or critics have questions about the real people -- they come to us.

TS: Could you discuss more how you feel that your screenplays and films help to reframe the work of outsiders? For example, in your discussions about the film Ed Wood, you discuss the making of his own film, "Glen or Glenda" (1953), as an exploration of being a transvestite and suggest that with this viewpoint, his film could be viewed as highly experimental, rather than an oddball, cinematic flop.

LK: We love real life outsiders. Characters that swim against the current. The world has treated them so harshly that we choose in our films to be non judgmental. And sometimes knowing their true story makes you look at their art differently. In the 70s and 80s it was very easy to laugh at Ed Wood...particularly a film of his called Glen or Glenda. Ha, ha, he's wearing a dress. But once you see our film and find out that he is putting his own personal story on screen -- he's making a plea for tolerance -- then it's harder to laugh. The movie then seems like a personal statement told in an experimental way.

TS: Do you have any sense of how Margaret's work may be re-evaluated after "Big Eyes?" I know that you've discussed her personal decisions as an example of proto-feminism in the 1950s, even if she would not applied that word to herself, and that her sad children really did represent her personal pain from being a woman in the 1950s who was married, a mother, and who, like many women, had very limited options if they chose to leave a marriage?

LK: I hope Margaret's art get reexamined. It was easy to call it kitsch when it was being presented as art done by masculine Walter Keane -- a Robert Mitchum type with a scotch in his hand. Why is he painting these girls?? Or when it was just anonymous art sold at Woolworth's. But when you find out that Margaret was the real painter and that the art was coming from her inner feelings you can look at it all a little differently. The eyes are sad because she was sad. What people thought was completely insincere art was actually emotionally real.

TS: How do you think Tim Burton feels about high and low art? He and I both graduated from CalArts, one the main academies for high art, yet I feel that we both have always had a broader definition of culture and how artistic production functions in society. I know that the exhibition of his own pre-production drawings and paintings in 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art were seen by the art world as being the equivalent of a King Tut exhibit, that is, it was just showing a name-brand in order to increase ticket sales by the museums.

LK: Tim feels that there is a fine line between what's good and bad...and that line is always moving.

TS: Could you discuss more some of the research that you uncovered with the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner newspaper files regarding gossip columnist's Dick Nolan's writings? Also, could you comment on your decision to have the Dick Nolan character as the movie's narrator, that is, you had a gossip columnist as the voice of "truth" rather than, say, the New York Times art critic John Canaday?

LK: Dick Nolan was a real life gossip writer for a San Francisco newspaper at the time. We discovered him during our research phase. Walter seemed to have taken over his column. Almost everyday there was some new bogus item planted about Keane, Inc. We use his character to give the film a Sweet Smell of Success vibe [a 1957 film about an unprincipled Broadway columnist and his intimidation of a devious press agent]. We were very influenced by that movie...the fifties nightclubs and such. When we went up to San Francisco to talk to real people, none of the folks in the art world knew Walter, but the people who told us stories were night owls and bartenders. Walter made an impression on them. He knew how to party. So Dick Nolan seemed like the perfect narrator for our story rather than someone stiff like John Canaday who really was an antagonist to the Keane Empire.

TS: Going back to the Warhol quote, "...If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it," what do you think about the idea of "visual literacy"? In other words, I've often felt that people believe that they don't require any education in order to appreciate art or film, unlike, accepting that they need one for everything else it seems. In other words, the general public does not want to acknowledge that there is a history of art and film, and that contemporary artists are in dialog with that history when making their own work.

LW: Teaching visual literacy is very important. People think I'm crazy, but I was a big proponent of showing my children age inappropriate material when they were growing up. Because of networks like the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon kids today are plopped in front of media that is always aimed specifically at them. When I was growing up, there were only three networks. I had to watch old movies and "Mannix" with my dad. I didn't know what the hell was going on. But I learned to be patient and decode meaning. So when my children were young, I would always slightly push the boundaries...showing them some film noir and 1970s classics. Making them realize black and white is not the enemy. Teaching them that there is more to the world than what is right in front of them. I think that approach is correct for all the arts. Push yourself out of what is safe.

The Big-Eyed Children Smile
The ending of the film is different than in the published screenplay. This is not unexpected, of course. The difference is a nuanced one that relates specifically to Margaret's emotional and spiritual changes. In the movie, it ended with her exiting the courthouse in Hawaii after the ruling in favor of her being the artists behind all the paintings rather than Walter. But, the published screenplay ends with a gallery scene that is now of Margaret's work only (unlike earlier scenes in the movie of the first Keane Gallery in which Walter claimed authorship of all the work), followed by what would have been the last shot in the movie:

We move CLOSER to one child, into the face, until the eyes fill the frame. And then...finally, we tilt down. Revealing that the child is smiling.

For me, this scene represents not only her triumph as rightful heir to her work, and the lifting of the emotional burden of lying to herself and everyone around her, but also represents how she later saw her work as representing her Jehovah's Witness beliefs of creating a Kingdom on Earth.

I appreciated how Scott and Larry handled the representation and importance of Margaret's spiritual beliefs, that is, knowing that the audience would probably be fairly secular. I'm interested in this question too because it's pretty much forbidden to discuss spirituality in the art world, just as there was once an inhibition to engage in the commerce of art in modernist, avant-garde art circles. Perhaps the only acceptable belief to espouse as motivation for one's work is to say that you're a Buddhist.

In regard to my interview with Margaret Keane in the publication of the screenplay, there is one passage that I'd like to reprint, in which we discuss her spiritual beliefs:

TS: What do you think about a lot of current pop stars collecting your work? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Margaret Keane: I'm surprised. I'm happy when people like my work. I don't quite know exactly why they like it, but I'm glad they do. Maybe they're searching for answers and the paintings say something to them. I think they like the older ones better than the recent ones.

TS: How do you feel about that?

MK: Well, when someone likes the older ones, I'm pretty sure that they have the same type of feelings that I had when I painted them. They're wondering, where is the world heading, what's happening and why am I here. And I guess that this generation is feeling the same things that we did in the '60's. Pop stars like Matthew Sweet and others seem to like my paintings, which is very flattering to me. I don't exactly know why. I think the world situation today...everything is so insecure and so much injustice in the world that people are looking for something better. I think the hope for the world is God's Kingdom, which will establish Paradise condition again, the way it was meant to be. I think young people today are searching for these things. And that must be why they like my paintings.

Portrait of Tyler Stallings transformed into a Keane painting via The Weinstein Company app. | Photo courtesy of Tyler Stallings and The Weinstein Company.
Portrait of Tyler Stallings transformed into a Keane painting via The Weinstein Company app. | Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Stallings and The Weinstein Company.

If you do like Margaret Keane paintings, then you can transform your own portrait into a Big-Eyed one via a special app from The Weinstein Company, and even allows one to add Big-Eyed puppies and kittens, or even a tear to your own eyes.

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