The outside world in 1950s and 1960s San Francisco and beyond believed that Walter Keane had painted the faintly spooky portraits of elfin-like children with outsized, staring eyes.
In fact his wife Margaret was responsible for the saucer-eyed artworks which hung on suburban living rooms right through this era.
So how did the deception last so long? Margaret (Amy Adams) had arrived in the big city as a divorcee with a child.
Initially she strikes out on her own only to eventually fall into the clutches of the slightly creepy Walter (Christoph Waltz). Walter, who is a real estate agent and erstwhile artist, is a compulsive talker so he has the patter.
He’s also an endless self-promoter.
Walter, newly married to Margaret, rents out space in San Francisco’s busiest and hippest club – the hungry i – and hangs the pictures simply signed: “Keane”.
Everyone including art critics believes the works were painted by Walter (‘people won’t buy lady art’, he says), whereas Margaret was responsible for the whole lot.
The club’s patrons snap up a lot of the paintings.
Even when critics such as The New York Times John Canaday (Terence Stamp) and modernist art dealer Ruben (Jason Schwartzmann) sneer at the big-eyed pictures as ‘kitsch’ Walter has a quick response.
He uses a quote taken from Andy Warhol: “If it was so bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
To fill the demands of Walter’s ever expanding marketing operation, Margaret beavers away in the family attic. Walter remains immensely pleased with himself, even going on TV chat shows to regale the hosts with stories about where his inspiration comes from.
The one he peddles the most frequently is his vision of orphans and street children seen when he was a World War 2 soldier in Europe.
It’s when things start to go wrong that Walter’s twitchiness is amplified. Margaret resolves to claim her work as her own, a move which leads to the famous 1980s court case of Keane v Keane.