So 35-year-old Billy Pappas was writing the most important letter of his life, a letter in which he'd invested 10 solid years of his youth, and $300,000 of somebody else’s money. “In the purest sense,” he told David Hockney, an artist he’d never met, “I think you are world class… Like you, I believe that the greatest art reaches beyond the initiated ...” Pappas wanted Hockney to agree to view a drawing he had made, a drawing he had spent a decade creating, in a thorough and dedicated bid to redefinethe boundaries of illustration itself. The drawing, he explained to Hockney, in neat capital letters, had beenexecuted in detail that to his knowledge had never been achieved by an artistbefore. That drawing, at this point, the viewer had not seen.
Was Pappas a nutter? At this juncture, there was no way of knowing. Except that somebody had believed his project was interesting enough to be the subject of a long documentary. Which had to count for something. Somebody else had thought Pappas,and his project, was significant. This man was Larry Link. The $300,000, contributed over the years in monthly envelopes, had belonged to the wealthy architect, gallerist and impresario. Others believed in Pappas, too. He had assembled aboard of supportive patrons around him, who had sustained him through the years of focused, obsessive work. And there was Pappas himself. He was handsome, articulate, intelligent and sincere. He had broken away from the limited aspirations of his rural Maryland town to be an artist rather than a restaurateur, like the rest of his family. He dreaded the idea that he would wake up one day in late middle age, regretting that he’d never really pursued his dreams, and wondering what would have happened if he had. He was immensely sympathetic and likeable.
All this heightened the expectations oftheviewer, and when the subject Pappas and Link had alighted on was revealed, the doubt it sowed was unwelcome. Pappas’s great work was a life-size portrait of Marilyn Monroe’s face, copied froma Richard Avedon photographic shot. How could a pencil drawing of a printed photograph of a much-portrayed woman whose image was so familiar it was kitsch, be transcendent? Yet Pappas talked with such fervour about his as yet unseen portrait. He described putting himself through teeth school, lip school, hair school, skin school, in order to capture Marilyn in greater detail than a camera could ever show. He had worked at great magnification, spendingalongday on an area the size of a full stop in a newspaper. His arms had ached so much from the strain, that after a few years had had started supporting them with slings as he drew.
Hockney hadn’t bitten, though. So Pappas got in touch with Lawrence Weschler, a New Yorker journalist, academic,and, crucially, the friend and biographer of Hockney. He kindly agreed to take a look at the drawing, wondering himself if Pappas was, indeed, a nutter. When he saw the drawing, he told Pappas: “Congratulations. You have drawn the human mammal.” He said he would arrange a meeting with Hockney, and he did. With the great date arranged, expectation became hysterical. Pappas spoke of being on the brink of a sublime career. His lovely parents revealed, tearfully, that they had known their son was a special person since his birth. Hockney didn’t let the camera into the meeting. So while it was happening, the viewer finally got to see the picture. The disappointment, on first sight, was crushing. But as the camera moved close to the drawing, Imoved closer to the screen. You could see that the drawing was indeed amazingly detailed. You could tell that it wasan interesting artefact, and a fascinating conversation piece. You could also tell, although you wanted to be contradicted,that it was no more than that.
After the meeting, which went on for five hours, Pappas was euphoric. It had, he said, “been one of the greatest experiencesof my life”. Hockney, he said, had “helped to explain me to myself”. Four months on, and Pappas was beginning to understand that the great hopes he had pinned on his encounter with the artist were going to come to nothing, because Hockney was returningnone of his letters, calls or emails. It was left to Charlie Scheips, a former assistant to Hockney, to explain what the artist had really thought that day. When Pappas had gone, Hockney had said to Scheips, dismissively: “It’s still that fucking photograph.” Scheips himself added that the drawing was “flat, boring, static”. Frankly, one hated him for his confidence, his sophistication, his pragmatism, and his honesty.
After a rocky period, Pappas began to rally. Older, wiser, and deeper in debt, heeventually took a job at a local restaurant.“I didn’t realise how much I needed to go to work again,” he explained. Ofthe $40 he earned on his first evening, he said: “It felt so good to have this money coming to me the way it comes to most of us.” Marilyn is not for sale, for it is all Pappas has to show for his great adventure , apart, of course, from this involving, touching, revealing, human, and utterly wonderful film.