Big Eyes Biography

Portrait of a Film Review: Big Eyes

December 25, 2014Ben MK

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The art of the con...

No matter how hard he tried, Walter Keane's art was never a hit with critics. But he became an overnight commercial success in the late 1950s, when his paintings of big-eyed waifs captured the imaginations of everyday Americans. The trouble was that it was his wife, Margaret, who was actually the artist responsible. The revelation shocked the art world when it came to light, and the story has now inspired director Tim Burton, whose biopic Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret Keane's struggle for independence and her fight to claim authorship over her work.


The story begins in 1958 Northern California, where we meet Margaret Ulrich (Amy Adams), a housewife with a keen interest in art, who also happens to be in the midst of leaving her husband. With her young daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye), in tow, she drives down to North Beach, San Francisco. However, she finds landing gainful employment more of a challenge than initially anticipated.

While selling her big-eyed portraits for a mere two dollars apiece at an outdoor art fair, she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a fellow painter whose Paris street scenes have become perennially unpopular with a local art dealer named Ruben (Jason Schwartzman). Walter chats her up, and after a whirlwind courtship, he asks for her hand in marriage. As it turns out, Walter may think of himself as a struggling artist, but he's also a successful realtor; and the financial stability he offers is just what Margaret needs, especially at a time when her ex-husband is accusing her of being an unfit mother and threatening to have Jane taken away from her.

After their wedding, Walter campaigns to get his and Margaret's art displayed in galleries. However, the only public space he's able to secure is one they have to rent from nightclub owner Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito). It's there — lining the walls adjacent to the nightclub's restrooms — that some of Banducci's patrons mistake Margaret's work for Walter's, and it triggers an ever-growing snowball of lies. Citing the general public's disinterest in "lady art", Walter pressures Margaret into keeping up the pretense. Before they know it, her kitschy art becomes wildly popular, and Margaret finds herself entangled in Walter's web of lies.

Big Eyes may be set some fifty years ago, but it represents an evolution for Burton, who eschews the trademark gothic imagery that has served him so well throughout the majority of his career, in favor of a stylized take on the fashion and architecture of the era.

As for its central character, Margaret, she's a woman with an intense emotional connection to her art. It's a role that plays into Adams' strengths as a dramatic actress, for over the course of the narrative, Margaret goes from being a naive innocent — not unlike the wide-eyed children she paints — to a more strong-willed character, driven by her struggle to break free from the shackles of the male-dominated culture and to retain her artistic integrity (and identity).

Not that Big Eyes can be considered a straightforward drama. In fact, the film often skews towards comedy, partially due to Waltz's exaggerated turn as Margaret's savior-turned-antagonist. Likewise, the performances from the movie's supporting players — including Krysten Ritter as Margaret's friend, Danny Huston as an investigative reporter (and the film's off-and-on narrator) and Terence Stamp as a high-and-mighty art critic — are equally lighthearted.

The Bottom Line Big Eyes bounces back in forth between the comedic and the dramatic, but it's that clash of tones that will keep audiences captivated. For although themes of identity, abuse and sexism run rampant throughout its narrative, the movie itself is no downer. Quite the contrary: it’s an oftentimes inspirational and triumphant piece of filmmaking, with an exuberant outward appeal that masks the sad truths inherent in the storytelling. In effect, it's a fitting reflection of the subject matter — and, arguably, Margaret's art as well.  Ben Mk

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