It would have to be Tim Burton to tell the strange and twisted real story of Margaret and Walter Keane. The tale of lies and secret identities, art and kitsch, talent and salesmanship is tailor-made for Burton’s brand of elevated weirdness; it even includes exaggerated features. Burton has always been a tremendous mood-setter but his best work has always been about the value of low art. In Ed Wood (1994) he explored the indomitable spirit of a film lover with no talent. In Big Eyes (2014) he shows the dominating spirit of a man with no talent but a knack for taking credit for it.
Margaret (Amy Adams) has taken her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) and left her husband in Tennessee. She arrives in late 1950s San Francisco with a sense of determination but no prospects. Her skills are as an artist. During the week she paints commercial furniture, and on the weekends she sells her big-eyed caricatures at an outdoor art fair. Walter (Christoph Waltz) hustles his wares in the next booth, using smarmy salesmanship to move chintzy Paris street scenes. He notices Margaret’s work and tells her she is undervaluing herself and her work. Margaret, too often told that she has no value, reacts with strong attraction. Soon (too soon, to be sure) they are married. “This is a bit fast,” complains a friend, “since you’ve been in San Francisco I’ve had two dates and you’re already married.” Margaret smiles demurely. “I know who I married.”
Walter is a real estate agent but has eyes on the art world. The posh galleries are too modern (and tasteful) for the unremarkably literal landscapes Walter shows them and they have no interest in Margaret’s disproportionate children. But Walter is a showman and an opportunist; he rents the wall space at a hot club, showing both his and his wife’s pieces. He gets in a fight with the club owner and the publicity brings people to the art. When they buy, they want Margaret’s striking portraits. He tells them he painted them. He brings home loads of money; she wants to know why she doesn’t get the credit. “My pocket, your pocket, it’s all the same,” he says. Soon he convinces her that they’re a team—every Keane painting is painted by both of them—graciously telling her that she can take partial credit for his unsold rues de Paris. They open a gallery where all the art is by Margaret but attributed to Walter. Now he tells her that people sadly don’t want to buy art painted by women. She brings up Georgia O’Keefe. He ignores her. In a flurry of publicity, Walter arranges to give one of “his” originals to every luminary and celebrity that goes through northern California. The mayor gets a Keane, the visiting ambassador from the USSR gets a Keane, Joan Crawford gets a Keane with even more dramatic eyes.
As Walter rises up the art world, Margaret shrinks in self-esteem. Distraught that she has given up her paintings, forbidden to have friends in fear they might discover the secret, she lies to Jane, once her favorite subject, and can no longer paint her. At gallery showings she must watch her husband be heaped with praise and suffer insulting questions like “So, do you paint too?” Confined to the studio, she produces piece after piece and Walter mass-produces the work, selling prints in department stores and markets (this predecessor of Warhol’s factory-style production is revealed as Margaret shops in a grocery store to discover that her work is on display. In her hand? A Campbell’s soup can).
All the while, Walter becomes more demanding and abusive. Viewers who wonder in frustration why Margaret doesn’t simply stand up for herself, why she is a willing accomplice in Walter’s ego-driven scheme, fail to recognize the impossible, self-destructive pull of believing when others say you are nothing. The emotionally battered find it easier to relent than to put up a fight and the sharks that would take advantage of that fact take full advantage of it. Walter is absolutely one of those sharks, toothy and wild. There’s also a smoothness to him that gently coaxes Margaret into his lie. Watch how gradually “your paintings” become “our paintings” become “my paintings.” There’s always money to entice Margaret, always the welfare of Jane to consider, always a logical reason, until she’s in the trap and he mercilessly preys on her, bludgeoning her sense of worth and keeping her right where he wants her. Here is a terrific performance by Adams, a silent, scared turn by a person whose love of creating is equaled by her disbelief in herself. In an underwritten part, she suggests a number of things the movie doesn’t explore but is richer for having them raised. Adams is never pathetic but is a confused mixture of suffocated, indignant, ashamed and self-loathing; Walter’s treatment has her coming apart at the seams.
Alas, however, it is Walter who cracks up. Waltz’s manic zaniness rises and rises as the movie goes on. He becomes enamored with the fame and admiration that his wife’s painting affords him though he never gets the respect of the mainstream art world. Big gallery owners continue to reject him and the art critic of The New York Times (laconically played by Terrence Stamp) makes it a personal vendetta to destroy the work, an act that Walter has the audacity to take personally, as if the work in question was his own. Adam’s performance is an understated clinic; Waltz’s is an over-the-top explosion, complete with a defiant German accent while playing a Nebraskan. Even while he’s chewing the scenery (and there’s a courtroom scene in which he interrogates himself that knocks right on the door of turning the whole thing into farce), he never lets you forget that Walter can be both the hypnotizing charmer and the overpowering menace. It’s like his duplicitous Colonel Landa by way of Daffy Duck.
The movie hints at some interesting questions. Obviously, Walter is stealing his wife’s work and passing it off as his own, but we never forget (nor does Margaret) that its success is just as indebted to Walter as it is to her. At least, that is, its commercial success. Without Walter, it’s difficult to believe that Margaret’s big-eyed paintings would have seen any light of day beyond the art fair (of course, Walter could have used his marketing skill to promote Margaret’s work as Margaret’s work). However, Big Eyes suggests, and it says it so subtly it can easily be missed, that one of the most damaging actions Walter took was to interrupt Margaret’s progression as an artist and have her focus on mass producing the same style of work. In her human search for recognition, she begins experimenting with other styles. Walter allows these paintings to be sold in a small corner of the gallery under Margaret’s own name (though when even one sells, he cruelly suggests that they be attributed to him as well) until the demands for the big eyes confine her to a sweat-shop existence of myopic production. Margaret’s unexplored creative avenue could have led to a valuable voice in the art world. Now we’ll never know.
Despite some nods to darker territory, Burton remains mainly on the bright and weird surface, giving us a zany yarn. A different director might have gleaned more insight into the nature of jealousy or the headspace of the personally dominated or might have made clear its thoughts on Margaret and her work, but few directors could have as masterfully taken this material and meticulously paced us on this path of gonzo silliness. While the derangement that takes over the screen is rich and sumptuous, I can’t help but feel a little empty at the end, despite the fairly satisfying happy ending. We are told that Margaret loved only two things, her paintings and her daughter, and in the end she retained both, but I got the unresolved impression that Walter took away more than that.