When I was a child, growing up in San Diego, I took an art class in Balboa Park. One of the boys in the class quite confidently declared that I could not be an artist because I was a girl. That was an attitude that Margaret D. H. Keane faced. Born in 1927, she belongs to a different generation than I and no doubt, she learned that there were clearly things a woman couldn’t be. “Big Eyes” is her story of reclaiming the fame that was stolen from her by her second husband, Walter.
Director Tim Burton has an affection for the 1950s–think of “Edward Scissorhands” and the carefully manicured fictional suburbs. He also once commissioned a Big Eyes portrait. I’m not partial to the charm of the distinctive big eyes that Keane is known for, but her story is fascinating.
The movie begins with her leaving her first husband–we learn little about him although Margaret had a daughter, Jane, with him. Walter meets Margaret an a small art fair in the San Francisco area. He is selling ersatz impressionistic works of the streets of Paris. Margaret is selling portraits of children which are all characterized by enormous big doe-like eyes, most of them sad. She is also sketching a child.
Walter wines and dines Margaret. They even paint together, although Walter charmingly claims that he is only able to paint when he is inspired and only Paris seems to inspire him and not San Francisco. Margaret soon learns that Walter doesn’t make a living as an artist. He’s a real estate agent and this is the first of several lies.
Walter (Christoph Waltz) is a great salesman and sees an opportunity in publicity and mass marketing. He’s alive before an audience while Margaret shrinks. He becomes a national celebrity while she works alone–not even allowing her daughter to know the secret and urging Jane (Madeleine Arthur) to forget her early memories of pre-Walter big-eyed paintings.
Eventually Walter pushes Margaret too far and she flees like before, this time to Hawaii. Walter wants to insure his future by asking for Margaret to paint him enough paintings for a wealthy retirement, but Margaret makes a stunning announcement on radio: She is the artist of the big-eyed portraits. Walter must then face Margaret in court.
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script is from Margaret’s point of view, but avoids painting Walter as an evil man. Walter is a poser and Waltz’s Walter is a failed artist but a successful salesman. If only he would have been happy with that, but this is the 1950s and Walter, like many men, didn’t change with the 1960s and 1970s. Margaret Keane married Walter in 1955, divorced him in 1965 and in 1970, she made her radio announcement.
In reality, Margaret was 58 and Walter was 70 when they faced each other in a Honolulu court for their 3 and a half-week trial and the eventual paint-off in 1986. According to the film it was becoming a Jehovah’s Witness that made her rise to confront Waltz. In real life, it was likely that and a new though short-lived marriage.
Amy Adams is pale and unassuming, as if she doesn’t realize how beautiful she is or was half-afraid to claim both her beauty and her talent. If you ask why she stayed, Adams clearly tells us why. She didn’t believe in herself. She was not ready for confrontation; she was barely ready to discuss her work in a small group of two. In an art class, one realizes the reasons for the critiques and class presentations. This Margaret wants her art to speak for itself because she cannot. She watches the world pass her by and seems almost relieved that Walter can shield her from the attention and the need to promote and sell her work. Almost, but not quite. Eventually every artist wants to be recognized.
Waltz’s Walter isn’t an evil man. He isn’t stupid. He isn’t cruel. He is simply old-fashioned, selfish and proud. How can a peacock that was once the center of attention present himself without his grand display? This Walter refuses to admit defeat, refuses to let his most successful work of art–Walter Keane the artist–to be destroyed by the turpentine of a legal decision.
Until the end of his life, Walter Keane maintained he was the real painter behind the Big Eyes works of art. He died at 85 in 2000.
“Big Eyes” is the story of how Margaret was the woman behind the man and found the courage to step into the spotlight. You can argue whether or not the Keane paintings are art–high or low, heartwarmingly sentimental or vomit-worthy kitsch. The movie doesn’t ignore this part and instead of being confrontational falls back on humor.
Margaret Keane may not be Judy Chicago and its hard to say how art history will portray her. Since she was born, when art history didn’t include women, women have become artists or at least, they’ve been recognized as artists. There was a time when an art teacher knew that I was the designer behind my soon-to-be ex-husband’s jewelry. He was the better craftsman but not an artist.
Tim Burton has made a funny feminist movie, or, if I can’t say feminist, then let me call it a film with feminist lessons. “Big Eyes” is for Margaret Keane, still living and painting, a well-deserved triumph that tells not only why she stayed, but why she left and how then she found love, faith and personal artistic fulfillment.