“I’m just a Sunday painter”
It’s a paint-off. Literally. Will the winner be the charismatic salesman peddling his wife’s art as his own or the soft-spoken woman slaving away in a turpentine-filled room that’s been dominated and belittled into allowing him to do so? Who will earn the right to say they were the creators of an oeuvre simultaneously thought to be worth thousands of dollars and infinite fame by the general populace and conversely less than the canvas they were painted on by New York Times critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp)? Cutesy, kitschy, and creepily emotive, these large eyed waifs prove to be windows into Margaret Keane‘s (Amy Adams) own soul. They are the children she allows to be wrested from her and sold under false pretenses courtesy of a lie ultimately leaving her without a vocation, voice, or identity itself.
The Keanes’ story is too crazy to be true and yet it most certainly is. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski wrote the script on spec while rights issues were worked out behind the scenes. Kate Hudson was originally set to star in 2008 with Reese Witherspoon replacing her in 2012 before Adams took the role and earned a Golden Globe. A pretty straightforward biopic leading us through layers of deceit, the devolution of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) from charming suitor to drunkenly egomaniacal sociopath, and the gradually growing confidence of Margaret to finally say enough was enough, Tim Burton‘s interest to come on-board to direct was somewhat surprising. The choice had me cringing in anticipation of his making it gaudily stylistic like his last few films, but he thankfully relented to deliver a welcomingly mature piece.
Besides the Danny Elfman score and a few visual flourishes superimposing the titular Big Eyes onto characters Margaret’s over-stressed mind viewed, you can barely tell it is Burton behind the camera. Supposedly his interest was of a more personal genesis stemming from his being a fan and collector of the paintings since the 1990s. The aesthetic of Keane’s work does seem right up his alley—after all, my sister believed it was an original work because she thought the forlorn, colorful children had come directly from Burton’s imagination before I told her differently. The adjectives I used above (cutesy, kitschy, and creepily emotive) could be used to describe much of his style as well, but I’m certain much of the appeal in telling this story came from the implausible act of fraud looming above the work itself.
It’s the 1950s and Margaret had just done the unspeakable: she left her husband to take daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) to San Francisco. With nothing but each other and a friend in DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter), she acquires a job painting cartoon characters on children’s furniture while setting up shop as a portrait artist during weekends in the park. This is where she meets Walter, a middling landscape painter flirting with young girls to sell his stock before taking a shine to Margaret. A whirlwind courtship commences and they’re soon married in a union as hastily completed in love as utility since her first husband attempted to sue for custody of Jane since a single mom wasn’t “fit to support a child”. Walter’s usurping of her work begins somewhat innocuously from there, but his malicious intent isn’t far behind.
Ego plays a huge role as his desire for fame outweighs any morality he might have once possessed. When a local gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman) refuses to buy his landscapes, Walter transparently unveils Margaret’s work too. He dislikes them a little less than his. Always the consummate salesman, Walter ultimately finagles the Keane family’s wares onto a nightclub’s wall only to be hidden in the darkness of a bathroom corridor. It’s there that the first purchase is made—for a Margaret “big eye”. Because she isn’t present and because he doesn’t want to lose the sale, Walter neglects to correct the buyer when she assumes he was the artist. Fast-forward to a scuffle with club owner Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito) with a resulting front-page article drumming up free press and Keane simply rides the wave (and Margaret’s coattails) to fortune.
The filmmakers pull no punches in showing the sexism of the era and the hubristic, boorish nature of men. Walter always has a reason as to why Margaret should go with the ruse and treat her work as a collaboration for which he receives every accolade and honor. The psychological toll this takes is immeasurable and Adams does a stellar job portraying it. From the initial, casual acceptance to the stunning self-revelation of just how big the lie has become once she knowingly deceives Jane by telling her the memories of watching Mommy paint a canvas were wrong, the decent into non-existence unfolds like the unimaginable tragedy it is. And all the while Walter is living the high life, embellishing stories and back history to impossible levels, and outwardly treating his wife as a cash cow without shame.
For his part, Waltz brilliantly changes from effusive con man to aggressive megalomaniac with instantaneous ease. The depths of his delusion could never be excavated as everyone around him bought the tale and unwittingly assisted in Margaret’s destruction. While I knew it all would work itself out in the end due to a public slander trial, I didn’t expect the revelations of how systemic Walter’s deceit was. The scandal surrounding them both is one for the ages as well as a leading factor to the popularity of something few critics granted a seal of approval. The theatrics on his part and the struggle on hers are so potent that you almost forget how derisive Canaday is from the start. It appears our affinity for an outrageous and controversial circus over anointed quality was alive and well in the 60s too.
 (L-R) AMY ADAMS, KRYSTEN RITTER, and CHRISTOPH WALTZ star in BIG EYES © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
 (L-R) CHRISTOPH WALTZ and DANNY HUSTON star in BIG EYES © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
 JASON SCHWARTZMAN stars in BIG EYES © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.