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On Movies: She did the work, he took the credit

Margaret Keane produced paintings that her husband claimed as his. "Big Eyes" tells their story.

Artist Margaret Keane and actress Amy Adams on the set of "Big Eyes." The signature said "Keane," but the public was misled.
Artist Margaret Keane and actress Amy Adams on the set of "Big Eyes." The signature said "Keane," but the public was misled.Read more

A ccording to Amy Adams (presumably a reliable source in this matter), octogenarian artist Margaret Keane had never heard of the actress when approached last year and asked, "Are you OK with Amy Adams playing you?"

"She was like, 'Who's Amy Adams?' " the five-time Oscar nominee recounts with a chuckle. "But she went and did her research and watched some films, and so I ultimately got the seal of approval, which is good."

Very good. Two weeks ago, Adams made the list of best-actress nominees for a Golden Globe (in a musical or comedy), and she may very well be hearing her name again come Academy Award time.

In Big Eyes, Tim Burton's seriously funny, seriously moving account of Keane's life, Adams finds the heart and soul of a woman who was both the victim of her times - a Mad Men-esque 1960s - and the victim of a husband who claimed credit for the portraits of orb-eyed waifs and tearful clowns that she was busily creating.

Signed simply "Keane," these kitschy paintings caught on like forest fires. Thanks to Walter Keane's entrepreneurial flair, the bright-hued images of crying cats, pitiful puppies, and "hobo kids" with the world's sorrows in their eyes sold as fast as Margaret could paint them. Posters and prints, books and cards followed, and Walter raked in the bucks.

"Margaret never saw a dime from Walter," says Adams, who spent a day in Keane's Napa County studio before the start of production on Burton's film, which was mostly shot in San Francisco. "She was like, 'I knew I wouldn't see that money. It never was about the money, it was about telling the truth and getting my name back.' "

Christoph Waltz, the Austrian who has won two supporting-actor Academy Awards (for his work in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained), plays Walter with a buoyant bonhomie and a huckster's gleam.

The real Walter and Margaret divorced in 1965. She initiated the split, but he demanded that she continue to supply paintings for him to sell - as his. And for a time, she did. He finally got his comeuppance in a slander suit that Margaret filed in 1986 (the movie depicts the dramatic courtroom "paint-off" between the two); the jury awarded her $4 million in damages. Walter died in 2000 at age 85.

In the early going of Big Eyes, which opened Christmas Day, Margaret leaves a first, smothering marriage and has relocated to the Bay Area with her young daughter. She meets Walter, who introduces himself as a fellow artist, and they start to date. Soon, he's on his knees, proposing. Not long thereafter, she discovers that he is claiming as his the paintings he has been putting up in coffeehouses and nightspots around town. She goes along with the deception, meekly, because he insists they are more salable if deemed the work of a man - especially a man who has lived as colorful and storied a life as he.

Colorful stories are all they prove to be.

Adams, 40, has explored this era before, and the way women were viewed in a society dominated, in just about every sphere, by men. In Doubt, she was a naive young nun teaching school in 1960s New York. In Catch Me If You Can, she's the gullible nurse who falls in love with the con artist (yes, another scammer), played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

"These are both women that came out of the same general time frame. And I had done research on women's roles at that time, and I read The Feminine Mystique and researched the early feminist movement. It was something I was familiar with and comfortable diving into. I understood it. It didn't feel foreign to me in any way. . . .

"People now are, like, 'Well, it's hard to believe that that happened.' Yes, but it did, and it happened a lot. It was very common that women subjugated themselves to their men. That was just the way things were. And it's one of those things you are grateful about now, how far we've come - and yet really, you can see there's still a lot of room for improvement."

As for what Big Eyes says about art - what sells, what doesn't, what counts for "good," what is deemed bad - Adams thinks that all art, ultimately, is personal.

"Sometimes it's the public that opens the door for the artist, and not the art world itself," she says, "and that just goes to speak to the fact that art is so subjective. . . . I find that with films, as well. People want to find a category to put the film in - you're this, you're that.

"Am I sounding just like Walter? Oh, no?  'You're this, you're that,' " she says, echoing Waltz's onscreen rant against the gallerists and critics who smirk at the Keane oeuvre. (And who use words like oeuvre.)

"But, yeah, what Walter says in his frustration with the art world, that is valid frustration."

Fairy tale theater. Anna Kendrick, who stars as Cinderella in Into the Woods, Rob Marshall's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical-theater mash-up of seminal Grimm's tales, thinks she knows why we continue to be, well, spellbound by these stories of witches and wolves, giants and princes.

"They're cautionary tales and they're life lessons, says the actress. "The beautiful thing about them - and the dangerous thing about them - is that they are stories that are supposed to guide you in your decision-making through life.

"And, as we know as adults, a handful of stories can't prepare you for every complicated decision you're going to have to make."

For Kendrick, nominated for a Tony Award when she was all of 12 for her role in High Society (the musical version of The Philadelphia Story), doing Sondheim was no Sunday in the park. Songs like "A Very Nice Prince" and "On the Steps of the Palace" make demands on their performers that standard musical fare does not.

"Sondheim is sort of a sadistic genius," she says with a laugh. "His music asks so much of you. You cannot sit back and relax into some sleeping melody. . . . His music is so alive. It just demands that you give all your presence and all your focus to it."

Into the Woods opened on area screens Thursday.