From the late 1950s, America fell in love with the work of Walter Keane. He captured the public imagination with his melancholy paintings of big-eyed waifs. In order to get these images out to a market that couldn’t get enough of them, Keane sold the images as posters, prints and coffee table books. Then, in 1969, America was shocked when Margaret Keane, Walter’s wife, claimed that every single waif painting was, in fact, her work.
BIG EYES is a rarity, a feature film with a copyright dispute at its heart. Fortunately director Tim Burton and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have crafted something more dramatic and interesting than a movie about intellectual property. Before she meets Walter Keane, Margaret leaves a stifling marriage (to Frank Ulbrich) with her young daughter Jane in tow. We are reminded by the narration that in the early 1950s choosing to be a single mother was an unusual path for a woman to take.
In 1955, the then Margaret Ulbrich, meets Walter Keane at an art fair in San Francisco, he seems like a charming man with a real interest in her art. He soon sweeps Margaret off her feet, proposes marriage and in short order they are honeymooning in Hawaii. Her friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter) is the only voice of caution. She says he is a womanizer. Little by little, the true nature of Walter Keane is revealed.
At first everything goes well. Walter discovers a market for the waif art of Margaret. For his own reasons, he lies and says that he is the painter. His actual talent is hustling up publicity and putting together deals. As the movie makes clear, the commercialisation of the waif paintings was all Walter. The film even makes the argument that he predated Warhol in the mass-production of art for the general public. However, his claiming credit for the paintings had a deleterious effect on Margaret. She was not given to lying, however she was somewhat under the spell of her controlling spouse. Walter was a verbal bully and prevented his wife from having her own friends, particularly so the secret of the paintings would remain hidden.
Day by day the deception wears on Margaret, while Walter goes from strength to strength as the media darling who created the big eyed children. He is exactly where he had always dreamed he would be, feted and rich, yet his wife despises him more each day. Few of us can appreciate the pressures of Margaret and Walter’s life, but the misery of two people in a relationship where neither is getting what they want is something almost everyone can relate to. Eventually the marriage and the lie become untenable. How the credit for the Keane waifs was established is fascinating stuff.
Amy Adams is excellent in the role of Margaret and was awarded a Golden Globe for her performance. Christoph Waltz gives the Nebraskan Walter Keane, a more European feel than one might expect, but his portrayal of a belligerent, mood-swinging con artist is very believable. Other performances are good, including Terence Stamp as powerful New York Times art critic John Canaday, but in a sense this movie is a two-hander where most of the emotion takes place inside the Keane’s marriage.
The writing team of Alexander and Karaszewski have crafted a solid tale. The writers were also responsible for another excellent Burton film ED WOOD. They have something of a fascination with biography and are also responsible for Milos Forman’s THE PEOPLE VERSUS LARRY FLINT (1996) and MAN IN THE MOON (1999) as well as Paul Schrader’s AUTOFOCUS (2002). They had originally planned on directing BIG EYES themselves and interviewed Margaret Keane while writing the screenplay. It is not unreasonable to imagine the strengths in the storytelling are theirs.
Clearly director Burton wanted to tell a straighter story than usual, indeed it is his most straightforward work since BIG FISH (2003). There is no visual spectacular, no Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, no hint of another fabulous hidden dimension anywhere. Instead we have an adult tale about a woman who thinks she is doing the best she can for herself and her child and instead finds herself in a bad relationship whilst being scrutinised by the national media. Those who love Burton’s dark, glittering side may not enjoy this, but it is clear that he regards Margaret Keane as much of an outsider, and therefore as worthy of his care and attention, as Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood
BIG EYES is in currently in limited released in Australia. It runs for 106 minutes. (7/10)