Directed by Tim Burton. Electric City Entertainment, Silverwood Films and Tim Burton Productions.
Distributed by The Weinstein Company, U.S.A, 2014. Colour, 105 minutes.
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Terence Stamp, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman.
When Tim Burton made Ed Wood twenty years ago, it was less a biopic and more an expressionist voyage into a filmmaker’s imagination, looking to rehabilitate the reputation of the man famous for being the worst director of all time into an artist with a unique perspective.
With Big Eyes, Burton once again explores the career of a misunderstood and under-appreciated artist, Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a creator whose paintings of children with voluminous, dewy eyes were popular enough to sell in supermarkets, but whose success was actually the cover story for an exploited woman in an unhappy marriage. In both cases, the films are written by the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose script for Milos Forman’s People vs. Larry Flynt is another example of filtering biography through the lens of the misconstrued gaze (and, especially in the case of Flynt, a scrubbing up of a complicated personality into a heroic figure).
This look at Margaret Keane is an opportunity for Burton to use her story to examine the nature of artistry, the difference between the self-image, the role of artist and the actual making of work. It’s also a response to critics who find Burton’s work artificial and insignificant (represented in this film by a snooty art critic played by Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartzman as an out of touch gallery owner) who don’t understand that the mind behind the work of creation is the only figure that matters.
The story begins in Northern California where Keane (then still Margaret Hawkins) grabs her daughter and runs away from a miserable marriage, thinking herself ready to turn a new leaf but, before long, entering into another dubious union. The mistake is not one anyone would blame her for: Walter Keane (played with relish by Christoph Waltz) is, upon first sight, a handsome, charismatic individual. He gives her the impression that he exists in the entire world at once and will introduce her to the boundary-less inspiration she has always longed for.
Her arrival in San Francisco necessitates making a living. Keane gets a job painting children’s furniture while her free time is spent selling her wares at street fair, where she meets Walter. He immediately approves of her work while hawking his own scenes of Paris, images of the city’s neighbourhoods based on his having visited there for a week years earlier. The rest of the time he is a successful realtor whose financial stability is appealing to her rootless state. When she is in danger of losing custody of her daughter to her vengeful ex-husband, she fast tracks their intimacy and accepts Walter’s proposal of marriage. Keane hopes for the best, but we, the audience, know that worse is going to come.
Keane immediately sublimates her identity upon marrying Walter, signing her paintings with his last name and capitulating when he begins to sell them at clubs and bars as having been painted by him; her signing “Keane” to her paintings is shown repeatedly and every time it is a punch, reminding us of her complicity in the con. Male authority is an inescapable power looming over Keane’s life, as demonstrated by a scene where she turns to a priest in a confession booth for help despite not being a Catholic. The weight on her mind is the pressure of succeeding at her art that is, at the same time, driving a wedge between herself and her daughter. It pains Keane to lie to her daughter about the authorship of her paintings. Keane makes no bones about admitting that she made bad choices from the beginning, and Burton doesn’t shy away from the feminist angle of this story: that marriage was a social necessity and the masking of her authorship being a commercial concern and not just to save Walter’s ego. Given the times, her paintings really would sell better if attributed to a man rather than a woman.
The division between Walter and Margaret Keane, however, is not about gender but the act of artistry, the nature of which is at the heart of Burton’s fascination with the story. Is ‘Artist’ an identity that is assumed or performed, can it be legitimized through the trappings of cultural assumptions (he lived in Paris and spends time in dimly lit bars) or is it the work itself, seeing Keane bent over her canvases day and night, locked away with her paints. “I am Keane, you are Keane, from now on we are one and the same,” Walter says, combining the two of them as to make a whole, the artist and the worker, except that neither of them is comfortable with it. She wants to work without compromise and on her own terms, and he wants respect as a great artist rather than as a showman. “These children are a part of my being,” Keane says, and it is a tribute to an actress like Amy Adams that she can pull off such a tawdry line without seeming like she is singing an anthem.
Success soon looms large and out of control: Keane creates portraits of celebrities (Joan Crawford among them), and they open their own gallery after being rejected by the high-fallutin’ art world. Critics respond as poorly as consumers express their enthusiasm. (Perhaps, Burton wants to remind us that even when critics hate his movies, they still make money.)
“Art is personal”, we are told, which is why popularity is a false front (since the people are worshipping Walter, not Margaret) and sometimes critical response is unimportant (since her paintings being called “drivel” didn’t stop them from selling or her life becoming the subject of a film). Keane’s work also seems to lie at that crux between the world of high art exclusivity and mass-market distribution, appearing to give birth to an industry of cheap reproduction. The commercialism that has been labelled as unimportant takes over completely at this point. She becomes a fully exploited artist, toiling away in an attic while her husband watches TV. She has accepted Walter’s assertion that the world won’t accept a female auteur, and it seems at times that she cannot decide if she resents Walter or the rest of this sexist world more; her response is to make a self-portrait and all Walter can say in response is that it is not commercially viable.
Their life soon goes from conflicted to ugly, a listless life of gallery and club evenings, meaningless to her without the ownership of her art and, by that measure, herself. Walter becomes a celebrity while the cover-up extends to friends and family. Margaret eventually flees another failed marriage: she can only control her domestic sphere and so she kicks Walter out of it, then retreats to the only place where she ever found happiness, Hawaii.
The deciding point in their going separate ways is Walter committing Margaret to the New York 1964 World’s Fair. The mural Walter forces out of her is previewed by an influential critic (Terence Stamp), who destroys it in the papers: “Art should elevate, not pander,” another key phrase that Burton likely wants us to hear directly before we bother him about the weak writing in movies like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory or Big Fish.
The eventual court case between Keane and Walter could have been a complicated one. Surely, most people who would find it hard to believe that someone could open a successful gallery, paint celebrities and be a fraud the entire time. The gauntlet thrown down brings us back to Burton’s main point, as the Keanes are ordered by the judge to sit in the courtroom for an hour and create a painting. The gospel truth of art is not a matter of Parisian expeditions, critical response, awards or fame, but the elbow grease of one creative mind expressing their inspiration in their given medium. Burton wants you to know that he can hear you calling his films unimportant fluff and that he doesn’t care, because he’s the one who has the temerity to make them, and you’re the one who chooses to sit and stare.
It’s no surprise that Burton films the entire movie with his usual brand of expressionistic imagery, a combination of Hammer horror film caricature and the gleaming perfection of 1950s’ advertising; his movies often take place in a Douglas Sirk-like world without the contemplation or emotional weight, and this one is no exception, right down to actors like Krysten Ritter (as Margaret’s friend) and Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur (as her daughter at two ages) who bear the keynote physical trait of the artist’s paintings, the large pleading eyes. The film is meticulously shot, all the glowing blues of tropical skies contrasting with the shock blonde hair on Adams’ head and the rich swirls of paint on her canvases. At times, the people around her have digitally enhanced eyes that are a hell of a lot creepier than her own images, as if she was painting thanks to trauma on the battlefield and not because of an excessive sympathy for her daughter (or a just plain aesthetic attraction to the style). The more surprising aspect of the film is that , narratively, it travels a straight line, from a brief background of Keane’s life before meeting her husband, to their marriage, their breakup and the dramatic court case that brought her to victory.
Caricature eventually becomes the prevalent tone of the film, actually, and that’s a shame given that it is at that time when it moves towards its emotional release. Walter’s mercurial charms are played broadly, and when he starts to balk at her desire to become independent of his influence his villainy becomes that of a caped brigand in a Gainsborough film from the forties. Burton should have trusted us to take Keane’s side without making Walter so one-dimensional, particularly given how sympathetic the story is to the circumstances that led her into his life in the first place. Adams fares somewhat better in a role that dampens down her more ethereal charms, undercutting herself with a low and monotone voice and putting all her objections into her own big eyes.
Big Eyes is engaging, despite some odd faltering moments, such as Keane’s finally revealing her ownership of her art on a radio program. Is it treated as a big enough moment, considering the legal battle that followed? Perhaps that was the intention, as the whole film feels a bit restrained, indulging itself only when Walter erupts in passion or anger. Keane’s story is interesting, and needs no gilding: the thievery is unmistakeable, the justice meted out uncomplicated. Being an artist is not an ephemeral attitude. It is not a style or trend. The artist is a mind at work, a tree that bears voluminous fruit for all to see.
Bil Antoniou is a playwright and film critic whose reviews can be found at myoldaddiction.com. He is co-host of the podcast BGM: Bad Gay Movies/Bitchy Gay Men, which is available on iTunes. He is currently working on his fourth play.