Hoover High School and Fresno State graduate Billy Keane had some concerns when he saw the advertising for the feature film “Big Eyes.”
The new Tim Burton movie looks at how Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), Billy Keane’s uncle, was a conman who bullied his wife, Margaret, (Amy Adams) into saying that he created all of the paintings depicting waifish children with unnaturally big eyes.
The film — nominated for three Golden Globe Awards to be handed out Sunday, Jan. 11 — suggests that Walter Keane could not even paint.
“When I saw the ads I thought, ‘This doesn’t look good for my uncle.’ I saw the film a day or two after it was released and it was almost surreal. This was not even the person I knew,” Billy Keane says. “I want people to know that Walter could paint. I know he did paint at least most of the pictures. Also, he was not a violent person. He was the the kindest and gentlest person. Women adored him.”
Billy Keane was born in Los Angeles, but his family moved to Fresno when he was young. His parents ran a shop in Ingelwood that framed most of the Keane paintings.
Before Walter Keane died in 2000 at the age of 85, Billy Keane visited with his uncle. Because of the artist’s advanced age, Billy Keane never saw him paint. He was told by his mother, Lillian, (who was married to Walter Keane’s brother, Howard), that she often saw him paint.
It was Walter who suggested the former Fresno resident, who was in the Hoover High jazz band and played with a rock band, go for a career in music.
“I was already interested in music, but Uncle Walter was the one who encouraged me to pursue it professionally,” Keane says. “He always said, ‘Love what you do, and do it every day.’ That always stuck with me.”
He took his uncle’s advice and has a six-song EP with his band Burnin’ planned for release in the spring. One of the songs will be the response to the way his uncle has been treated in the movie.
The script for “Big Eyes” by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is based on Margaret Keane’s life story.
Billy calls it a “perfect storm” as to the timing of the film’s release. His mother passed away a few months ago and the last of Walter Keane’s 10 siblings died last year.
“There’s nobody left to defend Uncle Walter except me,” Billy says.
The musician is left with several original Keane paintings his family owned.