Based on true events, director Tim Burton gives us the amazing, yet sorrow-filled story of Peggy Doris Hawkins, aka Margaret Keane (her professional name) who stumbled in to the art world in the most bizarre and saddest set of circumstances. If you remember those paintings, postcards, litho’s, and various posters that depicted pathetic waifs with huge doe-like eyes from the 60’s and 70’s, that was her work, or rather NOT her work. Let me explain…
It’s 1958 and Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) has just left her husband for San Francisco with her 11-year-old daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye) in tow. Margaret meets her BFF, DeAnn (Kristen Ritter) there and is set up with a place to stay and shown the sites, specifically where to sell her paintings. At a sidewalk art fair, Margaret meets a fellow artiste named Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) who is a debonair, silver-tongued huckster. His paintings of Parisian streets are so-so, but he sees $$ in her work of miserable little kids with great big eyes.
Problem is, women artists don’t sell, so Walter with his wit, charisma, and mad marketing skills, hawks the paintings for her. Soon they are married, the paintings are selling like crazy, and Walter’s notoriety is booming. And why shouldn’t it? After all, he’s claiming to be the artist! Even daughter Jane is convinced, as Margaret paints her works in seclusion. Margaret is at first mad when she finds out, but relinquishes to Walter’s fast-talking charms and, let’s face it, without him her paintings would go nowhere. It doesn’t help matters that Margaret suffers from low self-esteem, is fragile, and “just wants what’s right”.
Walter gets the idea for selling copies of the paintings one day, and boom! Lithographs, posters, postcards, and whatever are flying off the shelves. After 10 years of lying and deceit, not to mention a disastrous World’s Fair exhibition fiasco, Margaret finally has had enough and takes teen Jane (Madeleine Arthur) to Hawaii to get away from it all. There she discovers God with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and reveals the truth on a radio show; she’s the real artist behind all the paintings and Walter’s a fraud!
At a court hearing filled with accusations, the judge orders a “paint-off” competition between Margaret and Walter right there in the courtroom, and I don’t have to tellya how THAT ends! Walter even feigned a shoulder injury to get out of his painting duty! What a cad
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, this fascinating true story of the lonely big-eyed children paintings that have been seen everywhere, is at times troubling to watch. Adams is wonderful as the shy, weak, and powerless master behind the brush. You really feel her pain and wanna slap her and say, “This guy’s using you! WISE UP!” Conversely, Waltz is the perfect Jekyll and Hyde creepy manipulator that carefully orchestrates her life with just his words. Ritter just shows up for show and Arthur gets my award for the Worst Overacting Ever.
Burton, whose mastery behind the camera is so well suited for the macabre and unusual, doesn’t quite have a handle on this slice-of-real-life movie. It jumps too much from moment to moment without any emotional center, but that’s the danger of bringing true-life stories to the silver screen. Where do you draw the line between real-life and reel-life and deliver less a documentary and more a compassionate look at what happened? For a treat, look for the REAL Margaret Keane sitting on a San Francisco park bench in one of the scenes.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Hijacking your paintings and calling them your own is one thing, but stealing your music and having it bastardized by creeps while the guy who did it runs off with your would-be girlfriend? That’s grounds for some serious retaliation, man!
In this brilliant Brian DePalma mash-up that is part horror, part musical, part documentary, and has since reached a cult status with mega fan clubs and conventions (“Phantompalooza”) worldwide, the story is Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray combined, but the music is all Paul Williams who, quite coincidentally, headlines as the maniacal and enigmatic figure behind it all.
The great Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) gives the eerie opening narration about Swan (Williams), the hidden face behind every pop band that ever struck it big, but now he’s looking for the next big sound to inaugurate his grand concert hall, The Paradise. One day, Swan hears the perfect sound from a geeky piano player and genius composer named Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan sends his burly subordinate, Philbin (George Memmoli), to acquire all his works for him under the pretense that Leach will be paid and open the Paradise with his music. But that never happens.
Months later, at the Swan mansion, Leach hears the beautiful voice of Phoenix (Jessica Harper) and instantly develops a crush on her and her singing. After numerous failed attempts to talk to Swan, Leach is beaten up, framed for drug possession, imprisoned, and then has all his teeth yanked out! Ouch! Meanwhile, HIS music is being recorded by the Juicy Fruits, a Beach Boys-like band, which makes Leach go berserk. He breaks out of prison, but while trying to cause mayhem at the record plant, Leach is seriously maimed.
Horribly disfigured, Leach assumes a helmeted disguise (the “Phantom”) inside the Paradise to wreak panic, even kill, anyone who sings his music. But Swan won’t let that stop him! He convinces Leach to re-write his musical cantata for Phoenix; this way everyone’s happy. But Swan double-crosses Leach and steals his music – again – prompting Leach to murder the wildly prissy singer, Beef (Gerrit Graham–fantastic) on stage. Phoenix finally sings solo and wins the crowd, making Swan very happy, but Leach goes nuts and stabs Swan. But Swan doesn’t die! Why? There’s a little matter of the contract they all signed linking their souls together.
The ending is pure DePalma with his multiple camera angles and sad ending. Written by DePalma, the story is quirky, fast and darkly humorous, filled with catchy musical numbers and songs by Williams that have since gone on to be fan fav’s. The special blu-ray anniversary edition has many great features (I’m a huge fan of the movie), and solves the biggest mystery of all: why the name of the fictitious record label in the movie (Death Records) are badly super-imposed over everything? Answer: It was filmed showing Swan Song, but Led Zeppelin already had the rights to that name and threatened to sue, so they had to change it and fast, which accounts for some of the sloppy work. P.S. You can still see traces of Swan Song labels in the movie!
The soundtrack is rockin’ and the movie is just pure fun. I had a chance to speak to Paul Williams in 2013 about Phantom, and he told me that he was looking forward to making it into a Broadway musical someday soon.
Let’s hope so!