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Woody Allen’s film “In the movie “Sleeper,” a young partygoer from 200 years in the future gives hostess Luna (Diane Keaton) a picture of a big-eyed orphan child, and Luna exhales in wonder as if it were an original Gaugain: “Oh, that’s Keane! Keane at his best!” The joke goes that Margaret Keane’s artwork is the only form of art that will endure in the future. In reality, its worth will rise. Keane’s work provoked critical disgust from an art community that found her enormous popularity in the 1960s and 1970s (and still does) perplexing and demoralizing. However, Andy Warhol asserted, “I think Keane’s work is fantastic! So many people wouldn’t like it if it were horrible. He mimicked the child’s waif-like attitude as he posed for photographer Steve Schapiro in front of a Keane print. The peculiar tale of Tim Burton’s most recent film, “Big Eyes,” is that Margaret Keane permitted her husband, Walter, to claim credit for her work for a significant amount of time in the 1960s. “Big Eyes” is an oddly typical entry in Tim Burton’s filmography. It is amusing in some places, obvious and obnoxious in others, and Christoph Waltz gives a one-note schticky performance as Walter. However, it helps that the narrative itself is intriguing, and Amy Adams gives a stunning and moving portrayal of Margaret Keane.
In order to leave her marriage and begin a new life, Margaret is initially seen packing up her little daughter and a few luggage into a massive tail-finned automobile and travelling to San Francisco. At an outdoor art market, Margaret meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who flatters her and gives her motivational speeches. Before she is even aware of what is happening, they are going on dates, then another date, and eventually getting married. Walter paints Parisian street scenes (he lived on the West Bank for a while, he tells her), while Margaret creates paintings of toddlers with enormous, deformed eyes; none of them fit the mold of 1960s San Francisco’s bohemian, modern-art oriented culture. Galleries mock their creations.
Walter is a born promoter and a loud talker. He persuades the proprietor of a neighborhood jazz club to let the two of them display their paintings along the corridor leading to the restrooms. One evening, when someone shows admiration for one of the big-eyed paintings, Walter, who is present, claims ownership of the piece in the hopes that it will result in a sale. At first, it appears like a simple miscommunication or misunderstanding, but when Margaret’s work begins to gather traction (while his is completely ignored), it repeats itself. Walter explains to his wife that nobody would be interested in buying items from “woman painters,” and that she is also not adept at promoting or trying to sell her own work. Furthermore, as long as the two of them continue to make money, what does it matter whether others believe he painted the item? Such logical reasons scare and browbeat Margaret, who is the type of person they are. Despite feeling uncomfortable and dissatisfied about it, she accepts to continue the hoax.
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Walter Keane enjoys being a well-known artist. He hosts his own gallery and appears on chat shows. He enters events quickly. He concocts a ridiculous tale about how he visited Europe after the war and was tormented by the destruction and all the orphans. His big-eyed children are influenced by the orphans of the globe. Margaret, who is unable to enjoy her success, toils away in her artist’s garret, smoking and producing the work that has brought them money. Never would Margaret Keane have promoted herself to become a global sensation. For that, she required Walter.
Big Eyes Quiz
Except for one surreal scene at a grocery shop when every customer stares mournfully at Margaret with wildly exaggerated eyes, director Tim Burton plays it straight throughout, filming everything respectfully and without fuss or fanfare. An occasional voiceover, delivered by a tabloid writer who was interested in Walter Keane, explains, succinctly but helpfully, that “women didn’t just leave their spouses in those days.”
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With a talent for showing ambition combined with a smilingly cynical approach to acquiring what he wants, Christopher Waltz has been outstanding in numerous movies. When we first meet Walter Keane, Waltz sends the following message to us: “I have a lack of morality. I’m very shady. I’m misbehaving.” Waltz can’t help “playing the evil,” and he enjoys it so much that he can only fall into caricature. The performance intensifies over time, culminating in a moment in which he attempts to set his house on fire while his wife is still inside. Waltz is certainly having a great time playing the part, perhaps a little too much.
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“Big Eyes” has a feminist undercurrent, giving the impression that Margaret Keane didn’t even have the vocabulary to express how she was dominated by males and how much she accentuated her own powerlessness. Margaret disagrees with Walter when he says that female artists’ work simply doesn’t sell as well, but she agrees nonetheless. She believes he is probably correct. He is correct, too. Shutting out her friends and kid, she is in a terribly lonely position. Her only remaining connection to the outside world is Walter.
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The screenwriters of “Ed Wood,” “The Individuals vs. Larry Flynt,” and “Man on the Moon,” Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, are obviously drawn to popular art—art that may be derided by the mainstream establishment but nevertheless appeals to a wide range of people. Insiders in the art world despised Margaret Keane’s work, Walter Keane’s rigid marketing strategies, and the fact that paintings without their seal of approval were selling like hotcakes. This mentality is embodied in the movie by Terence Stamp’s portrayal of John Canaday, a snobbish San Francisco gallery owner and prominent art critic played by Jason Schwartzman, who called the big-eyed waifs “atrocities.” The opening remark from Andy Warhol suggests that Tim Burton and his screenwriters share Warhol’s admiration for Margaret Keane’s art. Who decides what constitutes art is a fascinating subject. Should negative things be equated with popularity? The response of the established art establishment to the big-eyes is a major source of amusement in “Big Eyes.” Who would want to take credit? thinks Schwarzman’s character, who detested the big-eyes, to himself after learning of Walter Keane’s deceit.
The film “Big Eyes” raises a lot of intriguing concerns about what art is, what popularity is, and what it takes to amass a sizable following. Returning to Warhol, it doesn’t matter if something is deemed “excellent” by an expert if a large number of people find it to be appealing. In such a circumstance, the cultural gatekeepers will always be inconsolable. Although Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” is not a major motion picture and has some tonal problems, it is easy to understand why he was captivated to the subject matter. It’s a really personal movie, in a way.