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Big Eyes asserts itself as a nifty sort of Tim Burton companion piece to his earlier Ed Wood, a consideration of self-imagined “artistic” lives that have less to do with art than with notoriety of a very peculiar sort. This nimble, bemused, culturally curious look at the married instigators of the kitschy “big eyes” paintings of the early 1960s exudes an enjoyably eccentric appeal while also painting a troubling picture of male dominance and female submissiveness a half-century ago. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz both shine in a distinctive work that will require shrewd handling on the part of The Weinstein Co. to give it a bounce from the specialized realm to a wider public.
As much as it clearly displays Burton’s directorial signature, the film is also very recognizably the work of the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote not only Ed Wood but the equally oddball biographical scripts for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, about comedian Andy Kaufman. This is a story about authorship and ownership of same within the context of an extremely imbalanced marriage, as well as of a warped struggle for recognition of one’s work, even if naysayers might ask, as one does, “Who would want credit for it?”
In the 21st century, all sorts of people become famous for the wrong reasons; this was perhaps somewhat less true 50-odd years ago, when cultural gatekeepers played a rather more rigorous role. But some things did slip under their radar, which was certainly true of the deeply weird, banal and unremittingly repetitive paintings of, mostly, women and children staring straight out with huge black eyes, works that were signed by someone named Keane. Who “Keane” actually was became a matter of extreme emotional, psychological, creative and, ultimately, legal dispute.
After bailing out of her first marriage, Margaret (Adams) grabs her young daughter, Jane, flees suburbia and high-tails it to San Francisco, where at art fairs she charges one dollar to paint kids’ portraits, which invariably depict the moppets with huge, round charcoal eyes. The pert but quiet blonde is quickly swept off her feet by the extravagantly charming Walter Keane (Waltz), whose routine pictures of standard Paris street scenes are accompanied by the painter’s grand tales of his days in the art capitals of Europe. Abashedly, he admits he’s now a realtor but encourages her in her work, insisting that, “You undervalue yourself.”
In time, that will prove a grotesque understatement. Promoting his wife’s work around North Beach, seen at the exciting moment of its emergence as one of the nation’s leading creative and alternative culture scenes, Walter is shunned by galleries but pesters Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito) to hang some paintings at his (soon to be legendary) nightclub, the hungry i, even if only next to the upstairs bathrooms. Signing his Paris banalities as “Keane,” he freely admits the “little hobo kids” portraits are his wife’s work — until, that is, they start attracting a following, at which point he claims them as his own.
His fast-talking salesmanship and gift for emotional manipulation quickly silence Margaret’s meek protests. But once the “big eyes” pictures start selling for $5,000 and more a pop and celebrities start collecting them (Joan Crawford even put two in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and used a Keane portrait on the cover of her autobiography), any puncturing of “his” reputation could bring the whole phenomenon crashing down to Earth. “I’m Keane, you’re Keane, from now on we’re one and the same,” he insists to her. By the time the Keane Gallery opens, the painting are all passed off as his work.
At first, Walter doesn’t have a clue how to discuss “his” art, his inspirations and methods. Eventually, he likens the staring, vacant, haunted-looking youths on the canvases to the “lost children” he saw in ravaged post-World War II Europe. At the same time, Margaret’s voluntary but bitter acceptance of her artistic anonymity sees her shriveling into insecurity and the isolation of her studio, where she continues to knock out big eye portraits while simultaneously veering off into a Modigliani-inspired style of elongated female portraiture.
The question eventually becomes one of how long this charade can last. In fact, it outlasts the couple’s marriage, which Walter doesn’t agree to terminate unless Margaret produces 100 more paintings for him to sell. Later, after Margaret has moved to Hawaii and become a Jehovah’s Witness, she states on a local radio station that she was “the only painter in the family,” prompting a lawsuit by Walter that ends up being adjudicated in an extraordinarily logical manner.
Like Ed Wood, both Walter and Margaret are creative wannabes. In Walter’s case, any talent or even attempted artistic activity on his part are purest fiction, although when the opportunity arises to claim false credit, he’s a mightily persuasive fabricator. As for Margaret (still alive today at 87), the jury apparently remains divided; that she was compulsive and driven to produce cannot be questioned, and she continues to be collected, including by Burton himself, who has commissioned Keane portraits of former protege and girlfriend Lisa Marie and wife Helena Bonham Carter. In the film, the artist is savaged at length by (real-life) New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp) — “It’s synthetic hack work,” he rants, “An infinity of kitsch.” — and the film’s consistently sidelong take on the work itself leaves ultimate evaluation to the eye of the beholder.
At the same time, the contemporary view of the sexual and emotional politics of the relationship is considerably more devastating. Walter’s exuberant personality could take over nearly any room and Margaret is far more retiring; all the same, her acceptance of his appropriation of exclusive creative responsibility for her work quietly speaks volumes about certain societal imbalances of the time. Faced with scorn for changing her style to the Modigliani-like portraits, Margaret quietly ventures that, “People don’t take women’s art seriously,” and passively shrinks from the stage while invisibly cranking out paintings like a one-woman factory. Whether or not to take Margaret Keane seriously is one matter. But very few men would have willingly vanished into the woodwork the way she does.
Adams’ first-rate performance illuminates both the reticent and creatively compulsive sides of Keane’s personality, although no one may ever know where it all came from and why she basically painted the same picture over and over again for years. Waltz’s exuberant side is given free rein as the actor makes Walter both winning and loathsome. This is certainly his best English-language performance in a non-Tarantino film.
Polito and Stamp are sharp in their real-life roles, while Danny Huston has some arguably superfluous voiceover narration as the late San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan, who befriended Walter. James Saito is vigorous and humorously domineering as the judge who ultimately sets things right.
The period details in Rick Heinrichs‘ production design and Colleen Atwood‘s costumes are pushed to the fore with great relish, and San Francisco in its immediate pre-hippie heyday has rarely looked better than as photographed by Bruno Delbonnel, who previously worked with Burton on Dark Shadows.
Ultimately, Big Eyes is not as profoundly strange or resonantly personal as Ed Wood, nor is there anything as magnificent here as Martin Landau‘s turn as Bela Lugosi. But it’s good to see Burton playing to his strengths against after a stretch of uneven work.
Production: Tim Burton Productions, Electric City Entertainment
Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Madeleine Arthur, Delaney Raye, James Saito
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriters: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Producers: Lynette Howell, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Tim Burton
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jamie Patricof, Katterli Frauenfelder, Derek Frey
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Rick Heinrichs
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editor: JC Bond
Music: Danny Elfman
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival