Now, with “Big Eyes,” starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as Margaret and Walter Keane, he has found a true-life tale that is stranger than fiction.
There was a time when Walter Keane was the top selling painter in the world. Original paintings of his big-eyed waifs commanded thousands of dollars but if that was too high end for you, a print could be purchased for the price of a breakfast at Dennys. And sell they did, like hotcakes. Keane became rich and famous and even though gallery owners, like the one played by Jason Schwartzman in the movie, thought the “taste police” should be called wherever the paintings were displayed and a critic (Terrence Stamp) called them grotesque and “an infinity of kitsch,” the morose portraits were very popular.
“I think what Keane has done is just terrific,” said Andy Warhol. “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
Trouble was, Walter couldn’t paint. He was an artist wannabe with a talent for promotion of other people’s work. In this case it was the work of his wife Margaret. For her the paintings were a personal expression, for him they were a personal cheque to fame and fortune. From selling the paintings at street fairs to the walls of jazz clubs to their own gallery and finally department stores all over the world, Walter became the public face of the phenomenon while Margaret sat at home, tucked away in a small garret cranking out big eyes and keeping her mouth shut.
Eventually Margaret sought out the credit she and share of the money she had rightly earned in a dramatic courtroom battle that was settled with easels and brushes instead of lawyers and writs.
Like Burton’s look at the life of Hollywood hack Ed Wood, “Big Eyes” once again proves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. The love and generosity Burton slathered on Woods’ eventful life and subpar work is once again on display.
The big-eyed paintings are an acquired taste, a kitschy look at another time when outsider art took center stage but Burton uses them not just as an artifact form another time but to present a story of an artist’s quest for recognition and recompense. It’s a trip back in time to the early to mid Sixties when women’s art was not taken seriously—“Your husband is quite a talent. Do you paint too?” she’s asked—and while we never really learn why the paintings become so popular, we know that through some savvy promotion they did.
What’s more important is the how and why of Margaret’s story. Why did she let her husband steal the spotlight and the money?
That’s the heart of it all and through Waltz’s flamboyant performance as the charmingly vile Walter and Adams’s soulful take on the shy and pliable Margaret we’re given a glimpse into a one-sided and unhealthy relationship with a very public face.
If the eyes are the window to the soul, “Big Eyes” is a skillful, if a little thin look at an artist’s soul and the soulless shark who tried to steal it from her.