Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret Keane and Walter Keane. Margaret, known for her paintings of children with big eyes, found herself in a power struggle as her husband took credit for her work, leading to a trail of secrets and lies.
It’s an entertaining watch helped by some great performances by the two leads and is a departure from the more eerie films we’ve come to expect from Tim Burton.
The film begins in Northern California, 1958. Our narrator and reporter, Dick Nolan, will occasionally pop in to help us along with the tale of this strange story that he covered. We start with a young woman packing her things. This is Margaret Ulbrich, played by Amy Adams. She and her daughter, Jane, played Delaney Raye, are hitting the road, Jack.
Soon enough, the two end up in North Beach, San Francisco. Margaret meets up with a friend of hers, DeeAnn, played by Krysten Ritter. DeeAnn knows the area well and plans to help get Margaret and Jane settled in. Life for the two has been hard without a father figure, but few liked her ex, Frank, anyway.
At least that’s established. The problem is that Margaret needs a job. She’s already at a disadvantage because women at the time do not leave their family lives without having some job prospects already set up. Unfortunately, Margaret’s best talent is her ability to paint.
But she can still try. Margaret meets with Peter Cummings, who hesitates when he realizes that Margaret separated from her husband. Margaret still sells her background: she attended the Watkins Art Institute in Nashville, Tennessee and knows how to paint very well. Only problem? She’s applying to work at a furniture company! However, she does still land a position to paint on cribs for newborns.
Following this, Margaret puts her work on display at an outdoor art exhibition. One family stops by as their son, Dylan, is drawn to Margaret’s works. She begins sketching the boy while Jane wanders off. Further down from Margaret is another artist, Walter Keane, played by Christoph Waltz.
As Margaret receives a dollar for her work- the father managed to barter her down from two- Walter comes over and tells Margaret that she’s much better than chump change. For Margaret, though, it’s not all about the money. She puts her heart and soul into her work.
Right from here, Walter connects with Margaret and tries to raise her spirits. The two share dinner that night at a fancy restaurant. Walter never has to pay because he gave the chef a painting. Is that how it works? Artists need to pay more attention if that’s the case. Walter is an adventurer and believes that one must grab things as they come by. He’s has traveled to Paris and found it hard to give up the bourgeoisie life.
Margaret, by comparison, has never even been on a plane. She doesn’t act freely. All she knows and has is her daughter. That and her art, I suppose. She can at least paint people, while Walter just paints buildings. A bit of tension arrives when Margaret takes Walter’s hand and tells him that he can paint anything. She pulls back. It’s been a while since she has been on a date.
The next day, the two decide to work on their art together. Well, Margaret is painting. Walter’s canvas is still blank, as he’s taking in the environment around him before he begins. He asks Margaret about the one constant in all of her paintings: the big eyes on every one of the people in her works. More than that, how come they’re out of proportion? Her response is that eyes are the window to the soul. This is how Margaret expresses herself.
At one point during her childhood, Margaret went deaf, so she could only see what was around her. Right from the start, you’ll notice that Margaret is very passionate and knowledgeable about art. She knows what drives her and how to best approach each piece she creates. She is, by all means, an artist. Walter, however, admits that he himself is just a man who works in real estate.
He feels anyone could do what he does, but he always just wanted to support himself as an artist. He’s just a Sunday painter.
The gentleman that he is, Walter helps Margaret bring some things back to her place, but bad news is afoot. Margaret has received a letter from Frank. He’s telling the courts that she is an unfit mother and beyond the capabilities of a single mother. As such, he wants custody of Jane. Looks like Margaret is in a tight spot, but Walter has a simple solution.
It makes absolutely no sense and the two barely know each other, but Walter promises he will care for Margaret and Jane. After all, she deserves a marriage in paradise. Maybe in a place like Hawaii.
Then we cut to Hawaii! The two are married and though they make the most of it, they cannot stay in Hawaii forever.
Back in California, the newly married Margaret Keane resumes her painting and sketching. She shares of the honeymoon photos with DeeAnn, who cautions Margaret to be careful with Walter- a man who DeeAnn says has diddled many skirts in the art circuit. So did he diddle the skirts themselves or the women wearing the skirts? Anyway, Margaret admits that Walter can be a bit rash and maybe she is being a bit naïve, but Walter is still a good provider.
Following this, we go to a different art gallery, appropriately titled The Gallery. Its owner, Ruben, played by Jason Schwartzman, isn’t a fan of the art that Walter brings in. It’s too literal and people aren’t interested in street scenes. Even when Walter shows off some of Margaret’s work, even saying that his wife did it, Ruben still isn’t won over. It’s not even art, he says, and will never be in The Gallery.
That evening, at a club, Walter tells Margaret that buyers will come for the art, but it all depends on the place and time. He speaks to the club’s owner, Enrico Banducci, played by Jon Polito, about putting some art on the walls, but Enrico likes his walls the way they are. Well, fair enough. Walter suggests renting the walls.
Walter does manage to get some of the artwork on the walls…outside the restrooms. So before people pop in the loo, they can get a quick glimpse of some kids with big eyes if they choose to. Some take notice, but they obviously have more pressing interests at the moment. One woman takes a particular interest in one of Margaret’s pieces. When asked about the artist, Walter takes credit for the work. The patrons buy it, and given that the name Keane is written on the paintings, they aren’t about to question it. The woman’s husband slips Walter some money for the work. Well, that worked. However, Walter isn’t done yet. He goes to Enrico and rants about being placed next to the bathrooms. Not exactly a glamorous position. A fight breaks out. Margaret soon bails Walter out.
But then, when Walter returns, Enrico is overjoyed. Their fight made the front page of the newspaper and now, people are coming by to see the art that led to this brawl. Hence, the two start another fake fight right there. This, in turn, leads more patrons to go check out this art. But you know who didn’t buy the bullshit fight? Our narrator himself, Examiner reporter Dick Nolan, played by Danny Huston, who is quite interested in this story.
At House Keane, Walter surprises Margaret by slipping a $20 bill under her nose. And with this great opportunity ahead of them, there’s plenty more money where that came from.
With that, Margaret gets to work on a new piece and brings it to the club. When she arrives, however, she overhears Walter describing Margaret’s artwork as his own. Whoops. Her question to him is very simple: Why are you lying? She’s surprised, but also upset as well. This is, after all, her work and she has an emotional connection to it. Walter, by contrast, is a salesman and just wants to ensure the two make a profit from this.
In pops fancy Italian tycoon Dino Olivetti, played by Guido Furlani. His English isn’t so great, but he knows greatness when he sees it, and that’s what he finds in one of Margaret’s pieces. One of Olivetti’s translators asks both Margaret and Walter about the piece’s artist. After a long pause with neither responding, Walter eventually speaks up and says that he is the artist. Margaret, meanwhile, remains silent, but aghast.
Despite this, Walter later brings in a check for $5,000. He’s working his way up in the art world and presents pieces to the mayor, the Soviet ambassador and even has something special for Joan Crawford. Margaret, however, wants honesty, but it’s hard to deny just how much money she and Walter are making from this.
If that wasn’t enough, the two now have enough to open their own art gallery. As Walter puts up a flier for the gallery, Jane remembers the time her mother painted the girl on the flier. Walter tells Jane that she’s confused: he’s the one who painted the picture, not her. Margaret doesn’t put up much of an argument and Jane eventually tells Walter that he did a good job on it, though she doesn’t sound at all pleased.
Margaret heads to a confessional, a place she’s not too familiar with since she was raised Methodist. Anyway, she tells the priest that she lied to her child due to extreme pressure from her husband. When asked if her husband is a liar, Margaret tells the priest that Walter is a good man. And the lie won’t actually bring harm to her daughter. Right now, Margaret wants answers. The priest tells her that children sometimes need to be sheltered from the truth. She should make the best of an imperfect situation and trust her husband’s judgment.
Oh, I’m sure nothing wrong will come from that. Let’s hold it there.
Would you rather have fame and fortune or integrity and respect? Few are able to have both and hold onto them. This is one of the messages I grasped from Big Eyes. Margaret paints because it’s what she knows best. She has a connection with each piece she creates and sees art as more than just colors on an easel. She is, in every sense of the word, an artist. But she’s also a woman with limitations and barriers placed in front of her. Despite that, she continues to work because she loves what she does, and not just to prove society wrong.
There’s a lot to take from Big Eyes and a lot of underlying themes and messages that play into the time period, such as focusing on commercialization of art, gender politics, intellectual property and self-worth. They don’t always mesh well and aren’t subtle at times, but I found this to be a solid movie with some pretty good performances.
I appreciated the discussion on intellectual property and ownership when it came to who could claim credit for the paintings. Sure, the movie doesn’t get deep into copyright infringement and the like, but what we little we get here is pretty good. The fact that Margaret only signed her last and married name on the paintings, Walter being a man and having more name recognition, and Margaret being unwilling to stand up for herself at first remind you that it’s important to put your full name on anything you create. It’s very easy to swoop in and steal something to pass off as your own if the original artist didn’t take credit for it. And once you begin to circulate that throughout and make a profit, you would be hard pressed to take the word of the original creator when they didn’t say something earlier.
Of course, not all of what the film wants to get across is fully realized. There’s a lot of talk about the roles men and women play in society. Margaret is told by the priest that she should trust her husband’s judgment and shelter her daughter from the truth, even though that could eventually lead to disastrous results. At one point, Walter tells Margaret that people don’t buy lady art, but we never get any indication as to why people, at this point in time, wouldn’t be interested in buying or looking at art painted by a woman.
When we first meet Walter at the outdoor gallery, there’s a healthy blend of men and women at work. When the father haggles Margaret from two dollars down to one, I got the sense that he did it more to save a buck than him looking down on her for being a female artist. My point is I never got the sense that Margaret’s gender would inhibit her if she tried to market her work. That thinking is spoon-fed to her by Walter. It’s not like Margaret had been banished from painting alongside other artists. California looked to be a pretty accepting environment for her art, so I feel that there’s no indication that Margaret being a woman would keep her from gaining a larger following.
Admittedly, as the film points out, Walter is the one with more name recognition and already established. Hence, he would have an easier time getting people to recognize art under his name because people know who he is. In fact, you could argue that Margaret’s pieces might not have gotten the visibility that they did, if not for Walter’s deception and through using his name to sell them to customers. Even still, over time, Margaret could, would and does get her own name out there.
The question is would she want fame and recognition? I think not. Margaret doesn’t paint for glory or seek celebrity status. She’s an artist first. Walter, by contrast, is a businessman, and when you put these two personalities together, you would think there’s a chance the two could make a good team: Margaret paints while Walter markets. That’s not the case when Walter decides to take credit for her work because he seeks fame. Granted, Margaret could have saved herself the trouble if she’d put something besides “Keane” on the paintings, but that’s not really the point.
The point is she sees no need to commercialize her art. She connects with her work the same way she connects with her daughter. Walter, however, doesn’t have that personal touch. Yes, Margaret is ecstatic that and Walter make a lot of money from her work because she’s ensuring financial stability for her daughter, but she’s uncomfortable at how her art is commercialized. It’s one thing to spend hours on end for one painting. It’s another to see that piece of art mass produced and put on display at your local market. There’s no emotional attachment to that.
This is well illustrated in one of the few moments in the film where director Tim Burton let his influence fly. Margaret is shopping for groceries and she spots reproductions of her work for sale. She then sees that almost every other customer in the store has the same big eyes seen throughout her work. Due to Walter’s meddling, Margaret’s art is less personal and more for profit.
If I can talk about the direction for a minute, I do think that Tim Burton did a good job with this film. We know Tim Burton has a taste for the theatrical. Here, he dialed back on the strange and fantastic to deliver a very straightforward movie. Some have said that, as a result, the movie loses some of its spark because it doesn’t have those creepy elements that define a Tim Burton movie. I disagree. If we’d had those elements, I feel they would have taken away from the movie and been more distracting than anything else. Also, even if Big Eyes is unlike a lot of Burton’s recent movies, that does not mean it’s not pretty to look at.
I will say now that Big Eyes is a gorgeous looking film. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who recently worked on 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, crafted a visually appealing film with colors that just pop off of the screen. While I still get a stronger feeling of the 1950s and 1960s from television shows like Mad Men and Masters of Sex, Big Eyes still managed to wow me with its visuals.
The performances are very strong as well. Amy Adams is great as the meek Margaret Keane, but the thing about Keane is that she’s not some helpless damsel in distress. In a way, she’s complicit in her role with this deception because she had every opportunity to speak out about what Walter’s lies, damn the consequences. When she overhears Walter taking credit for her work, she’s surprised at him, but she slowly becomes disappointed in herself for the shame of holding onto this secret. After all, she accepts the fact that she can afford to live in a house that has five bedrooms. She does accept some of the blame and she has her reasons for going along with it, but she’s not resigned to this lie forever.
As the film progresses, Margaret grows more vocal and defiant against her husband. Adams is good at showing confidence behind the mask of a woman that many would see as a pushover. Sure, this is a far cry from the more determined characters we’ve seen her play in films like American Hustle, but Adams more than carries her own in this role. And Margaret is not afraid to be outspoken. To her, art is personal. She speaks of art like she’s painted all of her life, but if I could harp on the film for one thing, it’s that I wish we got to learn more about what got her into the art. Granted, that’s not the focus of the film, but I enjoyed hearing Margaret talk about art so much that I wanted to know more.
The other thing is that Margaret is far from perfect. She’s not the prototypical, perfect 1950s housewife that stays at home and does what her husband commands, but she doesn’t have all of her affairs in order. She admits to being naïve enough to fall for Walter’s charm, but she won’t roll over and give into all of his crazed demands.
At one point, she suggests signing the pieces herself, even if, as Walter says, people don’t buy lady art. Margaret may have a handicap as a woman of the 1950s and might not want the fame that Walter craves, but she does still want pride and dignity in herself after spending so many years as the tortured artist. She admits that she’s had to live with the grief of lying to herself and daughter, but she doesn’t want the financial stability she’s built up to just collapse. But she does accept the age old lesson that money isn’t everything. She wants to make herself heard.
Of course, if Margaret wants to be heard, she will need a louder megaphone than Walter. I don’t know much about the real Walter Keane outside of this movie. Was he this fanatical and over the top? If so, then this film captured that perfectly. Walter steals Margaret’s credit, but he also steals the show in the sense that Christoph Waltz’s performance is very visceral and lively. He had such great energy throughout and was the most memorable part of the movie for me. That comes at a price of being a tad bit too cartoony. My only issue with Waltz’s performance is that it becomes overbearing and haphazard at times. Walter’s mood will go from calm and jovial to maniacal when he loses control of a situation.
Walter is the film’s antagonist, but he’s one of those villains that I enjoyed watching because Waltz himself seemed to be having so much fun. More often than not, Walter has this cheeky grin on his face that shows he has underlying motives to his actions. He’s what you would expect from a car salesman: lulls you into a false sense of security so you’ll confide in him, then go in for the blow when he has you under his spell. As much as I like Waltz’s performance, I wish he was more subtle. From the moment he asks Margaret to marry him, not long after first meeting her, he seems like the man who prefers to do first, and then ask questions later. He’s a businessman first. A good businessman, I’ll give him that. He makes connections and inroads with the finest in the art world and entertainment industry. He speaks fondly of France like he’d spent his entire life there and stares longingly at a blank canvas so inspiration can strike. All of these factors seem like traits of a well established and credible artist, but it goes deeper than that. I’ll leave that there, because to go deeper would delve into spoiler territory.
The rest of the cast is decent, but not given much to do. Jason Schwartzman is good as the cynical gallery owner who critiques Walter’s art as being too literal, but also isn’t a fan of Margaret’s work because of how different it is, which could be a jab at critics of Burton’s work, but maybe I’m looking too deep into that. I haven’t mentioned Terence Stamp because, although I liked his role as New York Times Senior Art Critic John Canaday, he appears so late in the film that I’d almost forgotten he was in the movie. That said, the few scenes he does appear in- he steals them easily and isn’t overwhelmed by Waltz chewing the scenery. Danny Huston is fine as well, but my issue is that I don’t think we needed his character to narrate the film and tell us things we can clearly see on-screen. That old adage of ‘Show, don’t tell’? This movie needed less narration and more of just letting the audience watch things play out for themselves.
Big Eyes is a very good movie. I sort of see this movie like Magic in the Moonlight: there’s nothing that made me dislike the movie, but it’s a fun enough distraction to watch. I liked it, but didn’t love it. And I could have done without the Lana Del Rey song, if I’m honest. The strength comes from the great lead performances from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Sure, Margaret is meek and Waltz mugs more often than he should here, but I’d be lying if I didn’t find their performances memorable. As the film builds toward its conclusion, it becomes more absurd, but I enjoyed it all the same. I don’t think it’s the Oscar contender that many have made it out to be, in my opinion, but I think it holds up very well.