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Avenging the big lie behind the ‘Big Eyes’

LOS ANGELES – In 1964, Margaret Keane was among the most famous living artists in the country, only no one knew it. Keane was the painter behind the big-eyed waifs that were gracing rec rooms and lounges all across America, the mother of a legion of adorable, forsaken children. Her canvasses were all signed simply “Keane,” and that allowed her husband, Walter Keane, a charlatan and salesman par excellence, to take credit for the work.

The rise of the Keane aesthetic in the ’60s, and the gradual and extravagant unraveling of their lie, nearly two decades later, is the subject of Tim Burton’s new biopic, “Big Eyes,” opening Thursday. The film stars Amy Adams as Margaret, a shy woman in thrall to her domineering husband, and Christoph Waltz as Walter, a master manipulator who convinced everyone from Wayne Newton to Madame Chiang Kai-shek that he was a portraitist. After a high-flying, liquor-soaked California life, the real Walter Keane died nearly penniless in 2000, bitter that his ex-wife had mustered the gumption to sue him and reclaim her career. At 87, with more than 60 years as a painter, Keane is finally seeing her story come to the forefront.

“I’m able to sign my name to the paintings,” she said recently. “That is really a blessing.”

But reliving the turbulent marriage that ultimately brought her worldwide fame, and the choice she made to go along with her husband’s deception, wasn’t easy, Keane added.

“Looking back, how could I have been so stupid?” she said.

“You weren’t stupid,” said Adams, who joined Keane for an interview. “It was just something that happened, you became complicit in it, and there was that living within that dynamic.”

Keane’s trajectory was in some ways a product of an era when women were encouraged to follow their husband’s lead, no matter the path. Although she had been painting since she was a girl, Keane believed a female artist wouldn’t sell as well as a man. She never doubted her talent – she paints to this day at her home in Napa, Calif., and sells work at Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco – but her newfound confidence paralleled the rise of the women’s movement and an acceptance of outsider and pop artists. Deeply private and now a Jehovah’s Witness, she has an unlikely story that placed her in the middle of a profound cultural shift.

To prepare for the role, Adams sat with Keane at her easel. “I can paint a leaf,” Adams said, laughing. “I can mix a very nice green.” Listening to Keane describe her own heartfelt artistic style in the interview, she grew teary.

“This happens when I talk to Margaret,” Adams said. “That’s how I knew it was the right fit, because when I’m drawn to a character, it’s because of the person.”

When Margaret Ulbrich met Walter Keane in the 1950s in San Francisco, he portrayed himself as a real estate salesman turned painter of Parisian street scenes. Divorced and with a young daughter, she saw him as a provider and a romantic. “In the beginning, he was just the most charming person you could ever meet,” Keane said. But a few years into their marriage, she discovered a crate of street scenes and realized her husband’s work was actually painted by someone else. “He had me completely fooled,” she said. “I thought he was an artist.”

Confronted with his lie, Walter convinced her that his muse was just in repose. “He’s saying, ‘Well, I’m rusty, and I’ll learn, if you’ll teach me a little bit,’ ” she recalled. “And I wanted to believe him, and I tried to teach him. And then it was my fault he couldn’t learn, because I wasn’t teaching him right.”

Meanwhile, Keane’s big-eyed canvasses were beginning to draw attention and, thanks to Walter’s promotional skills, buyers. As the images gained favor – with the public if not the art world – Walter thought to make inexpensive prints and license the urchins for postcards, mugs, plates and more. “He made them famous overnight,” Keane said. “I don’t know if they would have ever gotten off the ground otherwise.”

For her, feverishly painting ever more doleful creatures while her husband gallivanted, this period was a nightmare, she said. “I was in this trap, and I was getting in deeper and deeper. I didn’t have enough sense to stop it, or courage. And then, I think, lying like that, I think he began to lose touch with reality. I think he actually convinced himself he could paint, maybe.” They divorced in 1965, but he continued to play the part of the wildly successful artist.

In 1970, Keane, remarried and happily living in Hawaii, began to speak out publicly about her authorship. And in 1986, Walter’s skill with a brush was tested in dramatic fashion in a Honolulu courtroom, when she brought a defamation suit against him, and her lawyers argued that the only way to settle the case was a paint-off. Keane provided a signature waif in under an hour; Keane claimed a shoulder injury and never daubed a stroke. She won the case and damages of $4 million (later vacated). Yet to his dying day, Keane swore that he was the creator of the Big Eye look, and that his wife had learned it by copying him.

Writer and editor Adam Parfrey spent time with Walter Keane for an article in the San Diego Reader in 1992 that was expanded into the new book “Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind The Big Eyes,” written with Cletus Nelson. In interviewing some of Keane’s longtime friends, “I couldn’t find a single person who had actually seen him paint,” Parfrey said.

Burton had long collected Keanes, which he had first seen while growing up in suburbia. “I found them interesting because I found them quite disturbing,” he said. “It was like, ‘Why do you have a picture of a crying child on a wall?’ ”

The divided response to the work, pilloried as kitsch by critics but resurrected as a pop-culture fad every few years, also attracted him. “The polarization of it – some people loved it, some people hated it – I’ve experienced that myself,” Burton said.

He commissioned portraits from Margaret Keane and was struck by her demeanor. “In some ways,” he said, “she’s the quietest feminist: ‘I am woman, you can barely hear me speak.’ ” But “underneath, there was a spark,” he added. “This person who could easily be thought of a victim, but she wasn’t a victim.”

Though interest in Margaret Keane’s work, and prices on the secondary market, have spiked with publicity about the movie, the attention has been draining for her. “I’d rather be home alone, painting,” she said.

Adams volunteered that she’d rather be home, too. They talked about the other qualities they share.

“We’re polite women who are ornery inside,” Adams said. “We’ll get you when you least expect it.”

That was evident at a question-and-answer session after a recent screening, when Keane praised Burton’s work on the film. “Actually,” she added mischievously, “I really directed it, and he’s taking all the credit.”

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