Big Eyes

March 21, 2015
Amy Adams in 'Big Eyes' (2014)
Amy Adams in 'Big Eyes' (2014)

When New York Times art critic, John Canaday, wrote a scathing attack on the directors of the 1964 World’s Fair for choosing to hang a gigantic picture of 100 big-eyed children as a “theme painting”, the offending item was quickly removed. Those were the days! Art criticism (and the New York Times) were taken seriously. Mass appeal was banished as an index of a work’s importance.

On the negative side this story demonstrates the hold that kitsch and bad taste have always exerted over the popular imagination. If Canaday had not intervened the painting would have remained in place for the entire Fair and been admired by multitudes. Most people do not think about art on a daily basis. Put them in front of an image that overstates an emotional message and many will be moved. Add a little abstract doodling and the work seems very daring. Put it inside a big gold frame and it must be rare and valuable.

These are the sucker punches that bad, entrepreneurial artists routinely deliver to the public. Sydney has plenty of examples, including one so grotesque and unscrupulous that he deserves his own Tim Burton film.

There is a truly marvellous aspect to Big Eyes, Burton’s bio pic of painter Margaret Keane, and her con-artist husband, Walter, who took credit for her paintings. It is the fact that Margaret, played with perfect pitch by Amy Adams, is neither a fraud nor a deluded egomaniac. She is self-effacing and insecure, as devoted to her work as any great master. She is an artist of integrity with an original vision that just happens to produce horribly kitsch results.

The film begins with Margaret grabbing her daughter, loading up the car and driving away from a failed marriage. It is 1958, an era when “women didn’t do such things.” Moving to San Francisco she scrapes a living by drawing portraits in the park for a dollar. This is where she meets Walter Keane, who is busy selling quaint Parisian street scenes with much greater success. Walter has an extrovert, larger-than-life personality that has helped him in his unwanted job as a real estate agent. Margaret is swept away, and soon married.

If there were a special award for outrageous sleazebags in cinema, Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of Walter Keane would be hard to beat. It’s an over-the-top performance that becomes increasingly manic as the story unfolds. It is also the perfect foil for Margaret’s insecurity and passivity.

Having been rejected by the leading galleries, Walter talks beatnik businessman, Enrico Banducci (Jon Politto), into letting him hang pictures in his nightclub, The Hungry i. The space made available is a corridor leading to the toilets, but Walter never misses a chance to make eye-contact with a drunken patron. The only problem is that the punters prefer Margaret’s big-eyed waifs to his Parisian confections. When asked if he’s the artist he says yes, wanting to close the deal quickly.

It becomes apparent that people adore Margaret’s pictures, and Walter sees a path to riches opening up. With the help of local gossip columnist, Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), he begins spreading the story of ‘his’ art. When Margaret objects to the pretence, his reply is blunt: “People don’t buy lady art.”

Besides, what difference does it make? “I’m Keane, you’re Keane. We’re both Keane!” Margaret may have the artistic talent but it is Walter’s salesmanship that drives the burgeoning demand for her bug-eyed monsters. When he realises people are souveniring advertising posters, he begins to sell them. Soon he is hawking paintings, authorised editions of “prints” made from the paintings, posters and postcards. As money starts pouring in, Walter tells reporters how he was inspired to paint these children after seeing poor orphans in Berlin after the war.

Walter has tapped into the spririt of mass reproduction that Andy Warhol would soon make respectable as fine art. There is a neat gag when Margaret takes a trolley around the supermarket, picking up a can of Campbell’s Soup, before turning into another aisle to confront a mountain of prints and posters by Keane.

As Walter’s megalomania escalates he seems to believe he is actually the creator of the works. Margaret is a virtual slave, locked away in a cramped studio, seeing no friends because of the necessity of preserving their secret.

When the explosion arrives, shortly after Canaday (Terence Stamp) has denounced Walter in the press, Margaret takes her daughter and flees to Hawaii, which she sees as “paradise”. Helped by the Jehovahs Witnesses she reveals the secret of who painted the big eyes, and the estranged couple meet in court for a final showdown that must be one of the most absurd legal exchanges ever committed to film.

Big Eyes is a resounding return to form for Tim Burton, whose recent efforts have been patchy. The brilliant, high-keyed visual style that makes his best movies so compulsively watchable is back in force. The period is brought to life in accurate, detailed sets. Danny Elfman provides another excellent score.

Scriptwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszweski, were responsible for Burton’s other great bio-pic about a B-grade artist, Ed Wood (1994). Yet where Wood struggled to fund his movies, Keane was a global phenomenon. There is no doubt that Burton sympathises with such artists, and probably identifies with them. Margaret Keane’s story is told without a trace of snobbery or condescension. Not only do Burton’s own paintings and drawings have Keane-like moments; he is a passionate believer in a popular, accessible art that speaks to audiences in a language they understand.

It has often appeared that Burton can’t make up his mind whether he is making movies for kids or for adults. Big Eyes is one of his grown-up films – a fast-moving comedy-drama that asks searching questions about the nature of art, and the way women escaped the stereotypes of the 1950s. At the end we are still left pondering the quote from Andy Warhol that opens the story: “I think what Keane has done is terrific! If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” The paradox is that works of art can break all the rules, yet be loved by millions. This is the insight on which Jeff Koons has based his stellar career. He is the Walter Keane of our age – a super-salesman who has all his work produced by assistants. Unlike Walter he doesn’t even have to pretend that he made it with his own hands. This is what we call progress in art.

Big Eyes
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by
Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Jon Polito, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzmann, Terence Stamp, Madeleine Arthur, James Saito
USA, rated MA, 106 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21st March, 2015.