Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.
Romans 12:2 (J.B. Phillips)
Director Tim Burton tells the story of a painter who, judging by the opinions of many art critics, is to painting as kitsch film director Ed Wood is to film making. This is perhaps the strangest addition that I will ever make to my long list of “artist” films—a list that includes The Agony and the Ecstasy, Basquiat, Frida, Lust For Life, Rembrandt, and Vincent & Theo among others. Considered as “light Burton,” the film nevertheless explores the dark treatment once meted out to American women who dared to venture out of the kitchen to make their mark in the world. Without the low regard for women and their capabilities back in the Fifties, the mental subjugation and artistic rape of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) by her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) probably would not have been possible.
Although the film certainly raises the question of the artistic merit of those once popular paintings of children with enormous round eyes, the real issue in the film is the treatment of Margaret by her husband and her slow but growing capacity to resist and stand up to him. Maybe it is because I have just seen Into the Woods, but as I reflected on the intriguing story of Margaret and Walter, I came to see it as a mid-20th Century version of Little Red Riding Hood, both stories being cautionary tales about being devoured by someone who is a threat to our welfare.
Walter Keane is a very charming wolf, coming to Margaret Ulbrich’s defense at a San Francisco outdoor art show. A man, having bargained her down to $1 for a big-eyed portrait of his young son, disdainfully pays her in quarters. Observing this from his own display, Walter walks over and tells her she is better than just loose change. Margaret needs this bolstering, having recently fled an abusive husband and crossed the country in her car with her young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye, and as a teenager by Madeleine Arthur). Finding work painting the headboards of baby cribs, Margaret is soon keeping company with Walter, the two taking Jane with them on a painting outing. While her mother proceeds to work, Walter leaves his canvas blank, telling the questioning girl that he is waiting for inspiration. His works are all of Parisian streets, painted, he claims, when he was an art student at a famous French academy.
A passerby talks with Walter about business, and it soon becomes clear to Margaret that Walter is actually a realtor who paints on weekends. He tells her that his passion all of his life has been to be able to make his living as an artist. Later, when Margaret receives a letter from her ex-husband demanding custody of Jane because he claims the mother is unfit and unable to care for her as a single woman, Walter offers to marry her. They fly to Hawaii where the knot is tied.
There follows a succession of events in which Walter, unable to sell his own paintings hanging on the walls leading to the restrooms of the hungry i nightclub, discovers that people are interested in his wife’s works. Soon publicity generated by a story written by reporter Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) draws crowds to the nightclub, some of whom actually buy the works. Walter is able to take credit for them because Margaret always signs them simply as “Keane.” Margaret, upset at first, argues against this, but Walter forcibly convinces her to go along with the ruse. She even has to lie to Jane that the girl’s memory of her mother painting her years before was wrong. Thus begins the artistic rape that drags on for several years!
As time passes the Keane paintings are selling well, especially the cheap reproductions of them stacked by the cash register of their new gallery. Celebrities–including Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Kim–buy the originals The opening of the Keane Gallery is played for laughs because it is located right across the street from the one owned by Ruben (Jason Schwartzman). He had once scorned Margaret’s work when Walter had tried to get him to display them—the big eyes “look like stale jellybeans,” he had said. He is not very happy to see Keane’s success. And success it is, the Keanes and Jane able to move into a lovely five-bedroom home with a swimming pool and a studio.
When critics decry the popularity of the paintings Walter goes on TV in their defense, coming up with the false story that after the war in Europe he had been moved by the gaunt looking refugee children in Berlin, staring out through their big eyes. As the paintings continue to sell, the marriage begins to disintegrate. Walter cuts Margaret off from her best friend, forces her to work 10 hours a day, and tells Jane never to enter the locked studio. Walter becomes ever more abusive, in one contentious scene even threatening to “whack” his wife if she ever reveals the truth about the paintings. After discovering a secret about Walter’s work and a putdown in New York City by New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp), matters explode, Margaret and Jane fleeing the house.
Years later, after Margaret becomes a member of the Jehovah Witness sect she finally reveals her secret. This leads to a protracted court battle with Walter, during which her church members offer encouragement. The courtroom scene is a doozey, especially the way in which the judge (James Saito) sets up the means of telling who actually created the paintings.
Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote for Tim Burton Ed Wood and The People Vs. Larry Flynt, have provided a feminist tale of a victim who finally rises up to overcome her victimhood. Or, to return to the fairytale, Little Red Riding Wood manages at last to eat the wolf. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but we can say, she left him starving, for he died many years later penniless.
From the beginning we are shown how, to use J.B. Phillips’ terminology, the world squeezed her into its mold. When she applies for a job at a furniture factory the interviewer says, “We don’t get many ladies in here. Does your husband approve of your working?” As I recall the scene of the factory workshop, she is the only woman painting simple pictures onto the headboards of baby cribs. Later, feeling guilty over lying to daughter Jane about the paintings, she seeks advice from a priest in a confessional booth, and he tells her that because man is “the head of the household” she should trust in his judgment.
Thus the victory in court is the culmination of a long upward struggle for Margaret. It is ironic that the church which encouraged and sustained her during her long legal battle (extending over years rather than the brief period shown in the movie) keeps women in a secondary role in its worship services, accepting as gospel the various passages in the New Testament relegating women to subservience rather than leadership. But God does move in mysterious ways to free his children from their bondage.
Note: Reporter Jon Ronson’s excellent interview with the 87 year-old Margaret Keane in The Guardian includes lots of background information and photos of the husband and wife.
This review, with a set of discussion questions, is in the Jan. issue of Visual Parables.