The Julie Checkoway documentary Waiting for Hockney (2008, now on Tubitv) concerns the adventures of Billy Pappas, an illustrator with more chutzpah than is probably healthy for one person. A man who by his own admission is pushing 40 and looks more like a bartender than an artist, Pappas was deemed “special” at an early age by parents who, from what we see in the movie, wouldn’t know “special” if it left a stain on the front lawn of their home in Choptank, Maryland.
When he was in his late twenties, a directionless and uninspired Pappas met architect Larry Link, a self-described “life coach” who not only encouraged Pappas to pursue his art, but provided him with a small monthly stipend to keep him working. The result, nearly a decade later, was a highly detailed pencil sketch of Marilyn Monroe. Pappas and his band of believers felt the drawing would revolutionize the art world, especially if they could achieve Pappas’ pipe dream: he wants show his Marilyn to David Hockney, the famous and wealthy British artist who, they assumed, would bless the piece and magically grant Pappas entry into the world of big time art. Pappas’ mix of idiocy and fearlessness reminded me of Rupert Pupkin, Robert De Niro’s inept comedian from The King of Comedy, the guy who sat in his mom’s basement talking to cardboard cutouts of Liza Minnelli, hoping to get the rub from Jerry Lewis.
Waiting for Hockney does nothing to make us think Pappas is a great artist. He talks a load about the impact he wants to have, how he wants his work to stop traffic. He also, only half-kiddingly I suspect, compares himself to Michelangelo and Rembrandt. In the same breath, Pappas admits that he doesn’t know much about art history. He knows one thing – a simple illustrator’s job isn’t good enough for him. Later, when his mother offers an emotional monologue about how her son is a good boy and that his artwork is a way for God to help him do good, we understand where Pappas’ lack of humility comes from.
The movie documents human gullibility. No one is more gullible than those who believe their own hype, which Pappas is certainly guilty of, but the group of acolytes around Pappas is just as astonishing. Link is a shameless ham, mugging for the camera and declaring that Pappas’ Marilyn will launch the next major art movement. I only wish he’d had a handlebar mustache so he could twirl it. Dr. Gary Vikan, who at the time was director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, offers to be Pappas’ manager. A prep school president jumps on the bandwagon, as does a woman whose role seems to be making travel arrangements. Lawrence Weschler, art critic for The New Yorker, offers encouragement, too. Not even Rembrandt had such a big posse. What are these people thinking? Are they all as naïve as Pappas?
Checkoway gives us plenty of footage of Papas as a kid, living a typical Maryland childhood in the 1980s. The averageness of Pappas and his kin practically drips from the screen. That there wasn’t an ounce of culture in the household is apparent when his father Jim says, “You always hope your son becomes a doctor or a lawyer - someone who makes a contribution to society.” As if artists don’t. Yet, Ma and Pa Pappas indulge their son, even as he’s still living at home in his thirties, slipping around the house in his Aerosmith T-shirt. They, too, have bought into the hype. With little else of interest to focus on (the family’s parochialism becomes grating rather quickly), Checkoway perks up her movie with footage of Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, Monroe’s effervescence only draws attention to the flatness of Pappas and company.
And then the miracle: Hockney, who must have more time on his hands than anyone realized, finally invites Pappas to Los Angeles for lunch. This is when the movie gets tasty, as Pappas and his entourage make their way west, Marilyn safe in a big wooden case. Pappas’ mother can’t make the trip, so as a gift for Mr. Hockney, a name she’d never heard before her son became obsessed with him, she prepares a poppy seed cake. Then we see her at her receptionist job, working herself into a nervous mess waiting to hear from her son. Is she hoping Billy is a success just so the big lug will finally get out of the house?
One of the interesting things about Waiting for Hockney is that Pappas isn’t an easy guy to root for. He’s a meathead. At no time in the movie does he say anything about loving art – he only wants to be rich and famous. It’s almost a joy to watch him unravel as the meeting draws near. He begins to worry and doubt himself. L.A. is a culture shock. (“Wow, people wear their sunglasses indoors!”) Fortunately, Hockney is polite and surprisingly patient, allowing Pappas and his crew into his home for something like five hours, where the drawing is examined and poppy seed cake is served. But you can probably guess the end result. Guys like Billy Pappas don’t just crash into the world of high stakes art. Whether they should or not is a good question for another documentary.
Checkoway smartly keeps Marilyn from our view until nearly the end of the movie. It was based on Richard Avedon’s famous photo of Monroe, allegedly dismissed by Hockney as “that fucking photograph.” When we finally see Pappas’ drawing, we’re not sure what to think. Pappas’ style might be called “super-hyper extreme realism,” in that he fusses over every strand of hair, every wrinkle, every eyelash and mole. Despite his laborious attention to detail, the drawing is lifeless. It has the same forlorn, dead look as those rubber fuck dolls manufactured in Japan for lonely businessmen.
It’s never exactly clear how Checkoway wants us to see Pappas. Perhaps we’re supposed to cheer for this working class guy as he attempts to break the barriers of a very snobbish and self-contained field. He’s like one of those earnest club fighters who gets a shot at the heavyweight champion. But I couldn’t help but be repulsed by his small town arrogance. According to his website, he’s still hoping someone famous will offer him a commission for a portrait. It says, “We remember Lorenzo Di Medici today, not because of his life as a banker in Florence but because he commissioned Michelangelo. Whoever commissions my next portrait will enter the future and enter history.” The website includes a small gallery –since Marilyn, Pappas has drawn a frog, a rabbit, and some sea shells.