Once again we peer into the cinematic mirror to learn what film can teach us about the world we inhabit. Maudie is the biopic of a prolific folk artist, Maud Dowley Lewis, her difficult life and marriage.
A selection of highly collectible Maud Lewis folk art
Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door, is the definitive 2016 biography written by Lance Woolaver, 'eccentric and dark' at every turn. The film Maudie, which opens in Los Angeles and New York, also debunks the revisionist myth that has grown up around Lewis since her death in 1970. Lewis’ finely honed survival skills and refined sense of humor counterbalanced the heaviness she encountered. Fully imagined by writer, Sherry White; director, Aisling Walsh; cinematographer, Guy Godfree; starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, this film telegraphs Oscar contender for the prosthetics alone, as Ms. Hawkin's body becomes ravaged by complications from her medical conditions.
Both biography and film agree on one point: Lewis maintained a passionate, epic, and singular focus to paint up to the day she died. The film highlights her spark (which the biography disputes) delivered in droll sotto voce asides. Maud's perseverance to create pulled her through obstacles in the darkest of times.
'Maudie' could win Sally Hawkins a much deserved Oscar
Maud, born in 1901, is still the most famous darling of Nova Scotia, Canada. A serious cigarette smoker, she died from emphysema and complications of congenital birth defects as well as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Despite this, Lewis managed to leave behind a remarkable ouevre of thousands of paintings, collected by a wide range of people who stopped by her remote one room cabin, as well as notables such as Richard Nixon, Judi Dench and Peter Falk. Though Lewis may have smiled for the photo opportunities, she was not the happy homemaker in her bright atelier tiny home. Neither the film or the biography weave false impressions that talent conquered all of Maud's obstacles. Au contraire.
Heartbreaking still to hear Maudie's unheard plea for a trailer to stretch out in.
Maudie was rooted in an emotionally, verbally and on occasion, physically abusive, troubling romance with her husband Everett, a galoot she adored, according to the movie. Portrayed as a reclusive hunk and deeply damaged man, an orphan who may have been abused in childhood, Everett was known to have alienated and isolated Maud from friends and neighbors. He limited her use of batteries so could not freely listen to music on the radio while she painted. One of the most challenging aspects of working with domestic violence is the strong ties that bind couples together despite abuse. The film suggested Maudie drew strength from a wellspring of self esteem having been raised with loving kindness from birth until her parents death in her 30s.
Dr. Lerner's classic, Dance of Anger, outlines the cycle of violence in intimate relationships
The bedrock of Maudie’s secure attachment from childhood served her well, but was no magic wand when her life fell apart after her parents died.
Maud’s bete noire brother Charles took over the family's finances and treated her horrifically, just as the aunt he paid to take care of her did too. Not accepting this fate, and faced with few choices, Maud bounced into the arms of Everett on the ruse that he hired her as a live in maid. Other sycophants – a well meaning big city collector/patron and an accidental gallerist at a general store - malign or use her for their own vain purposes. Maudie's saving grace was her wise-cracking personality, she who forgave easily except when it came to her half-brother Charles Windsor.
Maud Lewis in all her glory
Maudie is refreshingly portrayed as a full blown sexual being. Shamed by one unplanned pregnancy with a lover, who left her while her parents were still alive, Maudie trusted her instincts with her second lover, Everett. Smitten with him, she kowtowed Everett into marrying her, this flawed man child survivor of neglect. The excitement Maudie felt for her oafish husband was non pareil in this masterpiece, even if it glossed over and minimized glaring deficiencies.
The film paints a brutal existence in a beautiful setting.
I am left to wonder, was Charles her half brother? In an obituary filed by Maud’s mortuary, she and Charles had different last names. Does this mean they had different fathers? If so, chances were Charles was estranged from his bio dad. Maudie had real dependency needs and required special attention due to her physical conditions especially as a child. Perceived as the favored one and doted upon, taught to paint by her mother and play the piano by her father, did this enrage Maud's half brother?
Could Charles been so jealous and out for revenge in adulthood,due to the special attention Maudie got for her disabilities, winning personality and natural aptitudes? Did a pathological hatred of her develop as children? Charles had to share his mother after all, while Maudie received uncomplicated affection from her natural born father. Given the times at the turn of the 20th century, Charles may have had only spotty contact with his biological father, if he spent meaningful time with him at all.
Warning, I am going to venture a bit darker here, so stay with me.
Could Charles have been the father of Maudie's child, and pinned it on the lover who rejected her? This might explain why Maud in real life refused to meet her daughter given up for adoption and grandchildren. Did she not want to reveal the secret that they were born of incest? This might also explain why the infant was 'sold' by Charles.
Am I guilty of seeing this through 21st century eyes?
How did it arise that Charles' had the legal right to dispose of the matter as he saw fit? Where their parents given a choice to help Maud raise the child?
Maud and Everett Lewis in front of their crumbling cabin
Nine years after Maudie passed, Everett was murdered during a bungled robbery at the atelier home they shared in 1979. Turned out Everett squirreled away over $20,000 of earnings kept on their home's property from the sale of Maud's works. Was it Charles who masterminded the attempted robbery which took Everett’s life in reality? In life it makes sense that Maudie would stay out of Charles' way and had a Lady Chatterly’s type groundsman lover, a body guard, who may have given her a sense of protection in the world.
Despite Lewis' success, the couple lived an impoverished existence, without indoor plumbing or central heating. I am also left wondering if Maud was in step with Everett or did she yearn for greater creature comforts and toed her husband's line? Did Lewis doubt she could paint forever, or did she have a premonition she would predecease him and knew that he would not be able to support himself after her death, so saving for a rainy day was a shared goal?
Though we may never know what adaptations and sacrifices went on behind closed doors and in the psyche of this remarkable woman to combat the negatives in her life, we do have this wonderful film, a ray of hope no matter how accurate it may be.
Disclaimer: Nothing written here should be construed as advice or as a substitute for mental health counseling. If you, or someone you know, is in trouble reaching out to a trusted family member or friend, or a therapist can be helpful. If you -or someone you know - is suicidal or needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
Tara Fass, LMFT #35078, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, California. She treats adults and couples dealing with a broad range of issues from navigating the legacy of divorce in one's life, to the quarter life crisis and conscious aging. Together we attempt to make meaning [...]