Tim Burton returns to earth in his latest collaboration with Ed Woodscreenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. After his recent horrors – I didn’t see Frankenweenieas I foundAlice in Wonderlandsimply grotesque (read my review here) – he returns to the subject of a much-misunderstood artist, in this case Margaret Keane.
The film is based on the strange-but-true story of Keane (Amy Adams), an aspiring artist who leaves her suburban marriage for San Francisco, where she hooks up with Walter Keane (Christopher Waltz), another Sunday painter, exhibiting his mediocre Paris scenes. Keane’s eye for money-making opportunities soon spots that Margaret’s big-eyed, waif-like children can be his path to fame and fortune, and he sweeps her off her feet.
He starts off by exhibiting outside the lavatories in the dingy Hungry I night club, and has the good fortune to have his fight with the club owner over this malodorous hanging space papped by the local celeb press, and soon the pictures are selling like hot cakes. Walter is unable to resist the accruing adulation and is soon claiming to be the artist, while Margaret churns out an endless supply of mawkish portraits. Suddenly his entrepreneurialism knows no bounds and he has invented the poster phenomenon, enabling thousands, if not millions, of people to buy the popular ‘works of art’ at affordable prices.
But this film is more than a story of an art fraud. It is a timeless portrait of an abusive marriage. Waltz and Adams personify the protagonists in this horrible relationship: Waltz, overtly charming, yet with psychotic tendencies and a violent temper; Adams, as a soft-spoken, devoted mother who paints to reveal her ‘window to the soul’, a phrase which Walter adopts with alacrity. It is only by seeing the domineering bully in action and his gradual erosion of Margaret’s individuality that renders her a virtual prisoner in her own studio, lonely and friendless, that we understand how such a man forces a woman, as in this case, to live a lie and betray herself and her child.
When Margaret points out – in a rare moment of retaliation – that he might be considered a paedophile for concentrating on images of small children, he invents an extraordinary tale about how the pictures are a tribute to the abandoned children he saw at the end of the second world war, who continue to haunt him. The gullible public swallow this without batting a large eyelid, as they do in the face of the huge deceits perpetrated by male abusers, who sometimes go on to murder their partners. Through this cautionary tale, Big Eyesretains some of Burton’s fantasy trademarks.
Which brings us to the pictures themselves. The gallery owner opposite the Keane shop, who had refused to give them hanging space, and can only watch the rabble in horror – and envy – while the dollars roll in; the New York Times art critic, John Canaday (what a joy to see Terence Stamp) lambasts them; yet Andy Warhol, populist as he is, praises them. The public obviously adores them, just as they adore Jack Vettriano, to whom no self-respecting gallery would give wall space.
We do know that Burton, who sits on the fence in the movie (he had to work with Margaret to make the movie), actually commissioned a Margaret Keane portrait of his first fiancée and muse, Lisa Marie; and that, interestingly, he was an animator at Disney many years ago, drawing cartoons of doe-eyed creatures. Amy Adams met Keane on a number of occasions – Margaret even gave her a picture. As Amy said in an interview, what is kitsch in one person’s opinion, is not necessarily so in another’s. All too true.
Fascinatingly there is no mention on Keane’s website of the eventual end of her relationship with Walter, and the court case to settle Walter’s ‘slander’, all faithfully and thankfully recorded here. Walter died penniless and Margaret is still alive today, churning out her saucer-eyed children. Big Eyes is an entertaining and engrossing movie at many levels, but Tim Burton has not regained any of the earlier genius of Edward Scissorhandsor Ed Woodin this return to the biopic and to reality.