For a few days in December, L.A. moviegoers could see The Founder, starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the honcho who spun the McDonald brothers’ small SoCal hamburger chain into solid gold. The brief local stay was intended to make the movie eligible for the 2017 Oscar and other awards, after which The Founder would be national released in late January. So far, however, the Weinstein brothers’ strategy doesn’t seem to be paying off. As of now, the only nominations the film and its star have garnered are for three AARP “Movies for Grownups” awards.
The focus in The Founder is on the misdeeds of Ray Kroc, who -- according to the filmmakers -- not only usurped the “founder” title from the McDonald brothers but also used nefarious means to cheat Mac and Dick out of money they were owed. This plot point is, it turns out, the end result of a typical Hollywood maneuver: making the film’s lead into an entirely despicable, though entertaining, con man. Not that Kroc was by any means a saint. He could be cold, greedy, and domineering, but in fact the McDonalds never accused him of breaking a promise about royalty payments. Here’s how journalist Lisa Napoli assesses the film’s claims of factuality: “The central premise, that Ray screwed the brothers out of a royalty, is patently false—and I am neither a Ray nor a McDonald’s apologist.”
Lisa should know all about Ray Kroc’s business dealings, because Dutton has just published her well-researched Ray & Joan, a dual biography of Kroc and his adored third wife, Joan. The film version apparently pays much more attention to Kroc’s badly-treated first wife, who is played by the always effective Laura Dern. Joan is a character in the film too, but not an appealing one. It annoys Lisa that one of the film’s “facts”—that it is Joan who convinced Ray to save time and money at his fast-food outlets by substituting milkshake mix for real ice cream—is pure fiction. The Joan Kroc who emerges from Lisa’s pages is not simply a beautiful blonde who enjoys expensive clothing and jewelry. She is also a budding philanthropist whose warm-hearted response to those in need has truly altered the American landscape. Hence the full title of Lisa Napoli’s publication: Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.
Lisa contends that it is Joan Kroc, not Ray, who truly deserves the Hollywood treatment. Joan started out as a restaurant pianist in St. Paul, Minnesota, became the wife of a McDonald’s franchise owner in Rapid City, South Dakota, then left her spouse to marry the persistent Ray, 26 years her senior. But once they had set up luxurious housekeeping in Southern California, Joan was not content to remain a trophy wife. Rather, she set to work against some of her husband’s more contentious policies. After his death in 1984, she began quietly giving away multiple millions to charities she considered worthy. These included the Salvation Army, several centers for the treatment of addiction, North Dakota flood relief, and an Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University. Angelenos who have seen Paul Conrad’s chain-link nuclear cloud sculpture in front of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium don’t usually realize it was secretly funded by Joan Kroc. And upon her death in 2003 it was announced she was leaving a bequest of $225 million to National Public Radio.