If you’re the kind that stores old living room paintings in the garage or under the bed, take a look and see if you have a Keane. You know the style, they’re those paintings of cute but mournful looking children with large, saucer-like eyes that at one time during the sixties were everywhere.
The paintings were attributed to Walter Keane, a man who made an art out of selling and mass-marketing those pictures with his name signed in the corner. There was just one thing: He never painted them. Sure, he accepted the credit, not to mention the fame, plus he oversaw the fortune that came with the sales, but he was not the artist. That role belonged to his wife, Margaret, and what was billed as the biggest con in American art history is now the subject of a new film from Tim Burton called simply Big Eyes, and it may well be his most accomplished film to date.
“The fifties were a grand time,” narrates journalist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), adding: “If you were a man.”
During a short introduction, Margaret Hawkins (Amy Adams) does something most married women of the time would rarely do: she packed her bags and drove away from a failing marriage. “All she had were her paintings in the trunk and her daughter in the back seat,” Nolan continues. We learn little about that marriage, but it doesn’t matter; it’s not part of the story. All we need to know is that a woman ran at a time when everything was against her and that’s enough.
To make ends meet, Margaret, now in San Francisco, gets a job painting Humpty Dumpty on baby cribs while selling her more ambitious renderings – the children with the large eyes – at the park. It was while trying to sell her art that she received the attention, not to mention the charm, of the artist in the next booth, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) who takes a shine to both Margaret and her paintings.
Romance blossoms, followed by marriage and a honeymoon in Hawaii. Why Hawaii? “Because you’re a princess,” Walter tells his bride-to-be, “And you deserve to be married in paradise.” Then there’s the financial success. Due to some marketing savvy, Walter turns Margaret’s paintings into a hugely successful enterprise. The arrangement was simple: she would continuously paint in the basement while Walter would find ways of getting the product out there. He would also take both the credit and the acclaim for being the artist. As Walter tells a despondent Margaret, “People don’t buy lady art.”
But Margaret was never happy. “Margaret was trapped in a world she helped create,” Nolan’s narration continues, “Where the cover-up was worse than the crime.” She turns to a priest in confession and expresses her dilemma with Walter, but the priest merely echoes the principle the narrator established in the introduction. “The man is the head of the household,” the priest tells Margaret. “You should trust his judgment.”
Big Eyes can’t help but fascinate, not only because it’s true, but because it’s amazing how the con went on for so long and what kind of person Walter Keane turned out to be. At first he’s a charmer, then a clever entrepreneur, then a nutcase, and Christoph Waltz captures all those levels so convincingly well. When a frightened Margaret runs from her husband after a confrontation, Walter starts lighting matches and flicking them in her direction. It’s at that point when you realize that this guy is unhinged. Plus, his refusal to ever admit that his wife did the work while he lied, even in court, borders on psychotic.
Considering the story is based on real events, the eventual court room scene, where Margaret finally attempts to prove to the world that she was always the artist, is truly bizarre. Keane, whose only experience with the law was watching Perry Mason on TV, acts as his own lawyer. What proceeds is like a skit from a comedian improvising a conversation with himself as Keane the lawyer asks Keane the defendant probing questions while frantically running to and from the stand in-between sentences.
There are all kinds of nice touches from the supporting cast, including Jason Schwartzman as an art gallery curator and particularly Terence Stamp as the New York Times art critic John Canaday who is less than impressed with the paintings and their style. “He’s like the hula-hoop,” Canaday announces, referring to Walter. “He won’t go away.”
But it’s Amy Adams who holds everything together with an award deserving performance showing strength in Margaret at a time when women had to stand by their man, or in this case behind their man. She displays a frustrated vulnerability when dominated by someone who might just be dangerous and a determination to expose a fraud when everything, other than the truth, was against her.
Under Tim Burton’s eye, the film’s colorful design of the period is well crafted while void of any of the director’s trademark fantasy effects. The setting is grounded in reality yet there’s a fairy tale feel to the project – not to mention an exploration of a certain style of art that people love but critics view as kitsch – making it easy to see why Burton was attracted. The theme has to resonate with him, having been the subject of similar criticisms of his own work in the past. Big Eyes contains something many of Burton’s previous imaginative outings didn’t always possess; a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end. It’s his most accomplished work to date.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 106 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)