The Guardian Talks to Margaret Keane, the Woman Behind Tim Burton's 'Big Eyes'
For 16 hours a day, Margaret Keane painted children with big eyes. Her work was an art sensation: originals went to 60s stars like Jerry Lewis and Kim Novak while millions of prints sold in corner stores. But Margaret got none of the fame or money. Her studio was a locked, curtained room in her husband Walter’s house, and he sold her work as his own, taking credit for every piece to amass a fortune and build a playboy’s life.
In an interview with The Guardian, Margaret Keane reflects the beginnings of the horror story. She says her husband told her, “‘We need the money. People are more likely to buy a painting if they think they’re talking to the artist. People don’t want to think I can’t paint and need to have my wife paint.” He had begun selling her work without her knowledge, and he didn’t want to change the story now that she knew. She saw his point, so she agreed to paint for him. But their relationship worsened as Walter’s fame grew, and his demands grew increasingly stifling.
“He was always pressuring me to do more,” Margaret told The Guardian. “‘Do one with a clown costume.’ Or: ‘Do two children on a rocking horse.’ One day he had this idea that I’d do this huge painting, his masterwork, to hang in the United Nations or somewhere. I had a month to do that.”
After 8 years of Margaret working essentially in captivity, the coupe divorced. Then in October 1970, after she finally stopped painting for Walter, Margaret decided to tell her story. When the news spread, Walter retaliated with untruths about Margaret, calling her a “boozing, sex-starved psychopath.”
So Margaret sued. When the judge asked Walter and Margaret to paint a child with big eyes in front of the court, Margaret paid hers in 53 minutes. Walter said he couldn’t due to a sore shoulder, and Margaret won the court case. She keeps the court painting in her house in Hawaii as a reminder of that victory.
Margaret’s work faded from popularity in the 70s, but now with an upcoming Tim Burton biopic starring Amy Adams as Margaret Keane and Christoph Waltz as Walter, the Keanes’ story is coming back. In Burton’s film, “Big Eyes,” the real-life Margaret plays a “little old lady sitting on a park bench,” and is in full support of the film, as traumatic as it was to see her story replayed. “To see Amy going through what I went through...It’s very accurate,” Margaret said. “Then it started to dawn on me how fantastic the movie is.”
“Big Eyes” premieres Christmas 2014; you can watch more of the story for yourself in the trailer below: