Big Eyes is the story of Walter Keane and his wife Margaret and their eventual court battle over who really painted all of those big eyed waifs that were so popular in the 1960s and '70s. If you don't remember them, trust me, the Keane kids were everywhere. They had over-sized round heads, mops of long hair and enormous, sad eyes. How popular were they? My grandmother, an old woman who didn't even speak English, had a metal waste basket in her kitchen with images of those famous, melancholy Kean kids on the side.
When Walter met Margaret, they were both struggling to sell their art in 1950s San Francisco. She was shy, but had a talent for drawing sad children. He was a gregarious charmer, but had no talent at all. Walter was, as depicted in the movie, the sort of sleazy hustler always trying to talk his way into a good seat at an exclusive restaurant. Gallery owners hated him because he was constantly showing up to peddle his unwanted paintings. Women in the local art scene hated him because he was such a rake.
Yet, Walter seemed to genuinely love Margaret. He encouraged her to paint, and told her not to sell herself short. Their life could have been a story of how a man put aside his own artistic aspirations to support his more talented wife. Instead, when Walter noticed Margaret's paintings were attracting attention, he took credit for them and never looked back.
Margaret was angry at first, but she knew Walter had a carny barker's knack for publicity. So the partnership was born: she would paint, and he would take the credit. They lived the high life for a while. They were featured in major magazines, given kudos by no less than Andy Warhol, and made sales that were the envy of all artists. Still, the secret ate away at Margaret. She would eventually break from Walter and prove in court that she was the painter, not him. A judge ordered that they both work on canvases in front of a jury. In short order, she knocked off a lovely little kid with saucer eyes. Walter complained of a sore shoulder and refused to paint. Case closed.
Big Eyes doesn't have much to say about why the Keane paintings were so popular, but when Walter finds out he can make more money by turning the paintings into posters, or post cards (or my grandma's waste basket), he's beside himself with nervous glee, astounded to discover yet another way to exploit his wife's talent. Meanwhile, Margaret sits in the attic of their luxurious house, secretly churning out more paintings. Why does she agree to keep up the charade for so long? Well, the money was nice, and as she says more than once in the movie, buyers weren't really interested in "lady artists".
The movie is good at showing a 1950s San Francisco where artists seem to bloom briefly on every corner. It's a dreamy version of San Francisco, a place where you could study Buddhism, or catch Cal Tjader playing the vibes at the Hungry I. The movie is told as a sort of reminiscence by a newspaper reporter who once interviewed the couple, a weak device that feels thrown in, but the reporter is usually in a clammy barroom, which provides a nice relief from the overly sunny exteriors that director Tim Burton shoots like he's recreating the cartoon suburbs of Edward Scissorhands.
The movie is not about painters, per se, though there are some rather routine questions about who should dictate what is or isn't art. It is really about a marriage between unequal but symbiotic partners. Walter and Margaret are like two small time criminals who would never dare pull off a big heist until they meet each other and spur each other on. She needed him in order for her work to succeed, which is largely why she grew to resent him. With her shy ways, she'd never push her way into the gallery scene. But as the years go by, she realizes that she's hitched herself to a petty, arrogant, and egotistical jerk. By the time Walter has a sort of breakdown and tries to burn their home down, she's had enough.
Burton's legion of fans may not know what to think of this fairly routine story. It feels more like a Lifetime network drama than one of Burton's usual offerings. But it does tie in with Burton's Ed Wood, in that it's about another untalented wannabe. The difference is that Ed was likeable and had a truckload of colorful friends. Walter is simply a borderline sociopath. He has a brief moment where he says, "I so wanted to be an artist, but it didn't turn out well." Unfortunately, Burton doesn't allow Walter Keane a chance to grow beyond that line. Burton wants him to be a creep.
Still, it's Walter's insane chuckle that has stayed with me since seeing this movie. His motto seems to be that people will buy anything, and he laughs harder every time his theory proves correct. It makes one wonder if behind every artist is a laughing huckster happily taking your money.
- Don Stradley