RB score: 10/10
“Big Eyes” is a somewhat unusual and fascinating project, that details the true events that transpired in the life of painter Margaret Keane, played by Amy Adams, a look-alike of the artist as a young woman. Margaret’s life work was claimed as his own by her then-husband, Walter Keane, played by Christoph Waltz in another stroke of brilliant casting.. The theme is established with the opening, a sunny scene of a California suburb in the late 1950s, as a reporter’s voice, who provides brief, succinct and unobtrusive narration, tells us that “The 50s were a great time…. If you were a man.” The settings were marvelous, from the homes, to the clothes, to the cars. Margaret is fleeing her American-dream existence, escaping an abusive husband with her little daughter and whatever she can throw into a suitcase. Notably, her paintings are mostly what she takes with her.
From there Margaret finds a job in San Francisco, painting children’s furniture in a factory. She continues to work on her craft and meets her second husband at an art exhibit. He is all waffling charm and very gracious to both Margaret and her daughter, and even with the wisdom of modern day hind sight the viewer will appreciate how a young woman on her own would be caught under the spell of a such a manipulator, especially given the stigma endured by divorced women at the time.
When Walter discovers, quite by accident, that there exists a true market for Margaret’s paintings, he gets to work maximizing the opportunity, while letting art buyers assume the paintings are his. The audience watches as Margaret does nothing to dispel the lies, smiling demurely in the background as she watches her husband take all credit, accepting his explanation that buyers would be deterred from purchasing paintings of a female artist. Walter’s talent for self promotion and Margaret’s talent for producing art that appealed to a wide audience combines to bring the couple great financial reward. Soon the three are seen living in a beautiful mansion where they entertain celebrities. Actually, Walter entertained, Margaret sat alone in a small studio painting for 16 hours a day. Only Margaret’s daughter is aware of the truth, but then she has been since the beginning – a very affecting part of the story.
The character of Walter is both baffling and universal. There is nowhere in life you can go and not encounter someone very much like him. To complicate the portrayal, most anyone can find elements of their own relationships over the years they’d like to do differently. Flashes of self doubt make us question how we conducted ourselves or how we treated someone. For the Walter Keanes of the world, the delusion is full time, never carried out in flashes with later regret. Never any desire to learn from mistakes, mend fences, or strive to be a better person.
Director Burton accomplishes the Walter character progression with such finesse that the viewer, even knowing full well they are watching a scoundrel, is still taken aback at what the disordered personality type is capable of, and how certain behaviors, certain boundaries, are not necessarily crossed immediately but in degrees and over time.
Margaret eventually found vindication and a renewed lease on life, and as of this writing, still paints today, although she is in her late 80s. The movie is thoroughly engrossing and so superbly well crafted, you cannot help but be drawn in from the opening until the end, which without giving spoilers, provides some interesting and satisfying closure.