Who painted, in Walter Keane’s words, “the waifs of the world” — those pathetically sorrowful wide-eyed children who became a Pop Art sensation in the 1960s? Keane (1915-2000) claimed he did, but those kitschy canvases were actually the work of his former wife, Margaret Keane (born 1927), who eventually demonstrated she was the waif artist before a judge.
Now the story of the Keanes’ marriage and their battle to prove “authorship” of the paintings is to become a movie called “Big Eyes.” It will be co-produced by Tim Burton, who collects Margaret's work and once commissioned her to paint his then fiancée, the model Lisa-Marie.
Reese Witherspoon will play Margaret while Ryan Reynolds has been cast as Walter. The film will be scripted and directed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose writing credits include Burton’s “Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” and “Man on the Moon.” They apparently initiated “Big Eyes” in 2009.
Born in Bible-Belt Tennessee, Margaret married Walter in 1955. Having closed his real-estate business, Walter started to paint full time, but Margaret was the talent in the family. Because she was pathologically shy, she colluded for 12 years in the deception that the waifs were painted by Walter.
The couple divorced in 1965. Both then claimed rights to the paintings. In 1970, Margaret challenged Walter to a “paint-off” in San Francisco’s Union Square, but only she showed up. Having moved to Hawaii and married Honolulu sports writer Dan McGuire, she brought a lawsuit against Walter in 1986. The judge ordered the Keanes to individually paint a picture in the waif style before the jury. Margaret completed hers in 53 minutes. Walter declined to paint, saying that he was suffering from an injured shoulder. Margaret also produced paintings of wide-eyed subjects she had created as a child. Margaret won the case and Walter was ordered to pay her $4 million for emotional distress and a damaged reputation.
After Margaret became a Jehovah’s Witness, the children she painted were, though still lachrymose, clearly happier than their predecessors. ''A lot of people don't like the sad ones,'' she told the New York Times in 1999. 'They walk in and say, 'Oh! I can't stand those eyes,' and run out. That happens lots of times. But other people just love them. There's no in between.''
In his 1973 film “Sleeper,” Woody Allen mockingly suggested that the people of the future would regard Keane’s painting as high art, along with Rod McKuen’s poems and Xavier Cugat's music. Still, the waifs won’t go away — as testified by such sexualized versions as the big-headed, almond-eyed fashionistas in the Steve Madden shoe ads, the Bratz dolls, and even anime girls.