Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, many boomers were probably very familiar with those melancholy portraits of saucer-eyed waifs, which were signed simply by the artist’s block lettered “Keane.” In fact, there’s a good chance you had one hanging in your house.
For better or worse, those kitschy paintings became a phenomenon for which Walter Keane amassed a fortune and received worldwide acclaim. He presented paintings to celebrities and dignities, and “Keane” quickly became a household name.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong Keane.
As it turns out, Walter’s wife, Margaret, was the real artist, and that shocking story of one of the greatest frauds in art history comes to life onscreen in Big Eyes, directed by Tim Burton and starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz.
The movie opens in 1955 as Margaret drives away from her marriage with her young daughter in tow. Divorce was scandalous back then – at least for the women – and Margaret is grilled during a job interview about whether her husband has given her permission to work.
She starts painting portraits of children at art fairs, giving them all giant, haunting eyes, and charging a dollar per session. “You undervalue yourself,” says the charismatic Walter, who is holding court a couple of easels away, selling charm along with street scenes of Paris. And it’s the truth of those words that lies at the core of this story.
Walter regales Margaret with tales of his days as an artist in Europe, sweeping her off her feet and proposing when her ex-husband threatens to take away her daughter, claiming she is unfit to take care of her as a single mother.
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By the time Walter suggests he should be credited for her work so they can actually make some money on it, Margaret has already been beaten down by society and has accepted that “People don’t take women’s art seriously.”
Adams gives another powerhouse performance here, quietly displaying the passion Margaret has for her art as well as the deep hurt of being pushed to the background. She and Waltz have both been nominated for Golden Globe Awards although, to me, Waltz feels completely miscast in this role. His acting is so over the top that he seems smarmy right from the beginning, and it’s hard to see how Margaret could have been so taken with him, other than the fact that she was so insecure herself.
It’s devastating – and frustrating – to watch Margaret meekly lock herself in a room, endlessly painting her beloved waifs, only to send them out into the world for Walter’s glory. When she finally decides she’s had enough, it’s a great moment and we root for her to kick him out of her life and get the credit and money she deserves.
With the release of this film, it also feels right that Margaret Keane, who is now 87 years old, will get another turn in the spotlight. Over the past few years, her work has taken on a happier tone and, on her website, she admits, “The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are the windows of the soul.”
The movie is likely to provoke some great conversation about the value of Keane’s work, the relationship between Margaret and Walter, and the role of women in society. As the fascinating story unfolds, viewers are likely to find themselves as big-eyed as the children in Margaret’s portraits.
Lois Alter Mark blogs at Midlife at the Oasis and is a regular contributor to Huffington Post. She is the reigning champion of Blogger Idol and was recently named Humor Writer of the Month by Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. Lois won BlogHer Voices of the Year Awards in 2012 and 2013, and writes regularly on pop culture and travel. Because of her blog, Oprah Winfrey selected her as an Ultimate Viewer and took her to Australia on the trip of a lifetime. A member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, she was the Flicks for Kids editor at NickJr.com and a contributing writer for Entertainment Weekly for more than a decade. Transplanted New Yorkers, Lois and her husband of 32 years now live in San Diego, where they have turned into weather wimps and complain about the pizza. Their grown kids are, of course, both on the East Coast. You can follow Lois on Facebook or Twitter.