We first meet Margaret (Amy Adams) back in the 1950s, when housewives were expected to wear house dresses, stay home with their children, and if they had a talent for painting, say – well, that was an acceptable diversion, perhaps… but only for personal enjoyment and only if it didn’t interfere with wifely duties and responsibilities.
But Margaret wasn’t like everybody else. She found that life with her husband was so oppressive that she had to take her daughter and get out. She fled to California where, perhaps, people thought a little differently and allowed others to do so. It wasn’t easy, selling personal portrait caricatures in the park for a buck apiece. She made good likenesses of people, except that her style was to draw bigger-then-life eyes, so that people looked more innocent, vulnerable, and… well, cute. It was out on one of these artist sidewalk sales that she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a painter of impressionistic French street scenes, who dazzles her with his bonhomie. We don’t learn much about her divorce settlement, only about the threat to declare her “an unfit mother” as someone who could not provide a steady home environment for her daughter. In Walter, she finds someone almost instantly ready to provide the kind of apparent stability that the “Father Knows Best” society expected. She brushed aside her own nagging doubts that she didn’t really know much about him. He seemed delighted with her and with her daughter, and everything else could be worked out, right?
Walter, it turned out, did have some very good qualities. He was a tireless promoter of her work. He found her a venue in a restaurant/bar where at first he “rented” the walls, and then, when a dispute with the owner happened to produce a fistfight that made the papers, he discovered the old Hollywood maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. People were flocking to see the paintings. Oh, there was this little wrinkle that somehow in the confusion people assumed he was the artist and he just let them think that, while Margaret simply stayed at home and cranked out her “big eyes” paintings. They were becoming so popular that Walter realized people were stealing the advertising posters. So, he hit upon the idea to sell the printed posters. That, in turn, brought about an image franchising that included everything from lunch boxes to stationery. Economically, they were a resounding success.
But there was trouble in paradise. Margaret wasn’t entirely happy with Walter getting all the credit for her work, but figured that’s what the society expected. Besides, he was a brilliant promoter, a genius marketer and a natural schmoozer, which freed her up to do what she loved best: the painting itself. Of course, maintaining the subterfuge was hard work, particularly trying to keep it from her daughter.
But Walter becomes drunk on his own false success and his arrogant bullying made Margaret feel that she was becoming desperately lonely and had somehow lost sight of herself. Finding out that he actually stole those French street scenes and represented someone else’s work as his own was the last straw. She moved out with her daughter again. Except, Walter won’t give up the goose that laid the golden Egg so easily. He sues, claiming he’s the true artist and deserves the rights to all the commercial sales and their residuals. And that creates a predictable media circus.
The story sounds unlikely, until we actually see pictures of the “real” Margaret and Walter during the credits. Though neither is exactly the paragon of virtue here, still, the story of their long-standing deception of all of us carries a certain curious interest. The fact that it took a professional critic to point out the kitsch, and a Christian evangelist to instill the idea of truth-telling, just adds more irony to this strange unvarnished tale of cloying Americana.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.