Your Lyin’ Big Eyes: Tim Burton Reveals the Secret of the Keanes

Margaret Keane and husband Walter add finishing touches to portraits of Natalie Wood in their San Fr

Walter Keane’s paintings of sad, huge-eyed waifs were a 1960s pop culture phenomenon. A former real estate salesman, Keane sold original “Big Eyes” paintings to such movie stars as Natalie Wood, Kim Novak and Joan Crawford, and he sold mass-produced greeting cards and posters of the saucer-eyed kids through Woolworth’s. So what if critics called his art kitschy? He hung out with Picasso and Dalí and appeared on Jack Paar’s Tonight show. He had millions in the bank, and his paintings were hanging in European museums and at the United Nations. There was only one problem: Keane’s wife, Margaret, was the real Big Eyes artist. Painting alone in a basement—“like a prisoner,” she said—Margaret was living a nightmare. Walter threatened to kill her and their two daughters if she told anyone the truth.

Walter Keane claimed that the starving children he’d seen in Berlin after World War II had inspired the Big Eyes paintings. For Margaret, the children’s eyes reflected her own pain and sadness; she said she was “painting my own deepest inner feelings.” In 1965, at the height of the paintings’ popularity, Walter and Margaret ended their 10-year marriage, but they remained business partners, with Margaret continuing to create the Big Eyes waifs in secret. (Margaret later claimed she was “just happy to get out alive.”) In 1970, remarried and living in Hawaii, Margaret decided it was time to reveal the big secret. She told a UPI reporter that she, not Walter, was the Big Eyes artist, adding that her ex-husband “couldn’t learn to paint at all.” She even challenged Walter to a “paint-off” in San Francisco’s Union Square at high noon. Margaret painted a Big Eyes portrait in front of hundreds, but Walter skipped the event, having told Life magazine, “I’d much rather daub than smear.”

The legal wrangling over who was the true Big Eyes artist was finally settled by a federal judge in 1986, when Walter and Margaret Keane were each ordered to paint a picture in front of a jury. Margaret completed her Big Eyes painting in 53 minutes. Again Walter declined to paint—citing a shoulder injury. The jury awarded Margaret 4 million dollars for her emotional distress and damaged reputation. Walter filed for bankruptcy. Margaret, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, forgave him, saying, “Walter is truly a remarkable man, but I think he missed his calling. He should have been an actor.”

Director Tim Burton’s Keane biopic, Big Eyes, starring Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as the unhappy couple, will be released on Christmas Day. Burton told Entertainment Weekly the paintings “struck some chord in the suburban environment where I grew up—in every dentist’s office and store and house were these weird, sad, Big Brother things. Some people loved them, and other people had a violently negative reaction. And I’m fascinated by the cosmic alignment that allows people to create something good and bad at the same time.” Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have written the Big Eyes script, and many fans are hoping the new film (which features neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter, two of Burton’s perennials) will be a return to form for the director after such recent disappointments as Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows. Burton also has a personal connection to the Keanes: In 1998 he commissioned Margaret to paint his then partner, Lisa Marie, holding Poppy, the little dog from their sci-fi spoof Mars Attacks!

None other than Andy Warhol once praised the Big Eyes art, helpfully explaining, “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” Walter Keane died in 2000 at the age of 85, and Margaret Keane is still painting at 87. Her works are sold through the Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco, where she continues to offer affordable prints and lithographs. Today, however, the children Margaret paints reflect her own happiness. “They still have big eyes,” she says,“but some of them are even laughing.”

Photo courtesy of EverettCONNECTS_Tim-Burton