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Margaret Keane, Painter and Subject of Tim Burton’s ‘Big Eyes,’ Dies at 94


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Margaret Keane, who went to court to prove that her popular paintings of children with large, sad eyes were indeed hers and not her husband’s, a tale that was told in the Tim Burton film Big Eyes, has died. She was 94.

Keane died Sunday of heart failure at her home in Napa, California, her daughter, Jane Swigert, told The New York Times.

Amy Adams portrayed Margaret Keane in Big Eyes (2014) alongside Christoph Waltz as her realtor husband, Walter Keane.

For years starting in the 1950s, Walter Keane persuaded his wife to paint for up to 16 hours a day while promoting her work as his own. Stars including Jerry Lewis, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Liberace commissioned Keane portraits, and Joan Crawford used one of her for the cover of her 1962 autobiography.

After Margaret and Walter divorced in 1965, she finally revealed in 1970 that she was the true artist behind the kitschy artwork.

In a “paint-off” in a Honolulu court in 1986, Margaret dashed off a big-eyed urchin in 53 minutes while Walter, who represented himself in the case, said he had a sore shoulder and was unable to paint. She won damages of $4 million, though they were vacated after Walter declared bankruptcy.

In his THR review of Big Eyes, Todd McCarthy wrote: “This nimble, bemused, culturally curious look at the married instigators of the kitschy ‘big eyes’ paintings of the early 1960s exudes an enjoyably eccentric appeal while also painting a troubling picture of male dominance and female submissiveness a half-century ago.

“This is a story about authorship and ownership of same within the context of an extremely imbalanced marriage, as well as of a warped struggle for recognition of one’s work, even if naysayers might ask, as one does, ‘Who would want credit for it?’”

Her story also was examined in Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson’s 2014 book, Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes.

Keane worked closely with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to develop the script for The Weinstein Co. film, including Walter’s self-cross-examination in the Honolulu courtroom.

“I was just totally blown away when I saw the way [Waltz] looked like him, acted exactly like him — it was like watching Walter,” Keane said at an early screening of the film. “It was a very emotional, traumatic experience when I first saw the movie. I just couldn’t believe it. I was really in shock for about two days.”

“Margaret was so gentle and so inclusive,” Adams said at the event. “I felt a huge responsibility to play her with a lot of dignity and respect because I think she is a woman who has a lot of dignity and a lot of respect, not only for herself, but for others.”

On Twitter, Karaszewski noted Keane’s death and wrote: “Grateful we all got to spend so much time getting to know her beautiful spirit. It took a decade to bring Big Eyes to the screen. But her tale of surviving abuse was important. She wanted the world to know the truth about her life and art.”

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