1958. You are living in a tract house in a northern California suburb. Your husband is at work. With a sudden burst of energy, you pack a few bags, hustle your daughter into the car, and drive as far and as fast as you can.
You are a painter with decades of training in your craft, but 1950s America has no interest in “lady artists.” So you supplement your meager factory income by doing portraits for pennies in the park every weekend.
And then a miracle occurs…
Another artist–hawking streets scenes of Paris nearby–comes over, takes a look, and likes what he sees. “You’re better than spare change,” he says. “You shouldn’t sell yourself so cheap. Lemme show you how it’s done.”
And thus begins the “sometimes truth is stranger than fiction” tale of Margaret and Walter Keane who, in less than five years, become two of the world’s most prominent—and highly paid—living painters.
At this point I will do my best not to discuss the plot because I want you to discover Big Eyes for yourself, the way I did the first time I saw it at a critics screening on November 25th. But you can trust me because I have now seen Big Eyes twice, plus I have read a mountain of relevant background materials since that first screening including Big Eyes and All: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Keane by Jennifer Warren, Citizen Keane: The Big Lies behind the Big Eyes by Adam Parfrey & Cletus Nelson, and Keane: The Wonderful World of the Walter Keanes by Dick Nolan. I now have a copy of the Big Eyes screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (published with a “Making of” afterward and an interview called “Margaret Keane Looks Back” by Tyler Stallings), and Amazon even managed to deliver a rare copy of Tomorrow’s Masters (the two volume boxed set of full color prints Walter prepared for the 1964 World’s Fair).
There were a million ways to tell the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, so trust me when I tell you that the screenplay is restrained. Everything that Alexander and Karaszewski show happening really did happen, but they actually left out some of the over-the-top parts like comedian Jerry Lewis and his entire family (including pets!) posing for one of Margaret’s group portraits, Margaret and Walter presenting a portrait to Adlai Stevenson when he was the USA’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Joan Crawford personally presiding over the opening of a new Keane Gallery in Manhattan, and students from Stanford University’s art department releasing white lab rats in the middle of Margaret’s keynote speech. (“Citing the importance of painting as a medium for expression, artist Margaret Keane addressed the Associated Women Students yesterday…”)
What is actually on screen is a high wire act—strung between the twin poles of Comedy and Tragedy—performed by two incredible actors who are each at the top of their game.
As Margaret, Amy Adams transforms herself into a Silent Movie Queen. (“We didn’t need dialogue,” says Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. “We had faces!”) The real Margaret is a painter, and words are not her medium of expression. So Amy Adams must tell us everything Margaret is thinking and feeling while she continues to work feverishly on her canvases… and she does! This is far and away the greatest female performance to be seen anywhere this year—from art house to multiplex and everywhere in between—and I will be heartsick if Amy Adams is not a candidate for Best Actress when the Oscar nominations are announced on January 15th.
Christoph Waltz does an equally brilliant job as Walter—Walter who is always, always talking with a manic intensity that gradually morphs from genuine charm into alcoholic rage. But Waltz is so endearing—even in his blackest moments—that we can see into the heart of this complex character. We live through his experiences as they are happening and therefore we come to understand that Walter is not a monster but a man of taste and spirit who keeps swimming further and further away from the shore until suddenly the waves of his own success have grown so huge that he is ultimately overwhelmed.
Director Tim Burton has also kept tight focus on the Keane’s home base in San Francisco, minimizing time spent in all the other locales we know they traveled to (including multiple trips to Japan as well as all around Europe). Although a couple of necessary scenes are set in Hawaii, even the famous trip to New York for the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair is reduced to a fancy reception room that could be anywhere.
This allows Burton and his expert team of designers (especially production designer Rick Heinrichs who won an Oscar for Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in 1999, and costume designer Colleen Atwood who won an Oscar for Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010) to recreate The Beat of San Francisco’s magnetic North Beach. Superlative work is also done by multiple Oscar-nominees Bruno Delbonnel (the cinematographer who worked with Burton on Dark Shadows in 2012), and Danny Elfman (the composer who has written wonderful scores for many Burton films beginning with Bettlejuice in 1988).
The plot is filled in through five perfectly cast supporting performances by Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur (playing Margaret’s daughter Jane first as a child and then as a teen), as well as Krysten Ritter (as Margaret’s North Beach buddy DeeAnn), Jon Polito (as hungry I owner Enrico Banducci) and Danny Huston (as San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan). Two wonderful cameos by Jason Schwartzman as the owner of a high end North Beach gallery and Terence Stamp as New York Times art critic John Canaday reveal the gatekeepers to be exactly who they were—and primarily still are—self-important men who delight in throwing their weight around.
I am sure that Margaret Keane never thought of herself as a “Feminist,” and even today, at the age of 87, she still might reject that label. But the more you know about the early 1960s—about Betty Friedan and “The Problem That Has No Name,” Audrey Hepburn as the gamine Holly Golightly, etc, etc, etc—the more you will see in Big Eyes, and the more you will understand about how the choices some women made in the 1960s provided the foundation for who we are today.
Top Photo: Amy Adams glows as painter Margaret Keane.
Bottom Photo: Christoph Waltz as Walter wants Margaret’s friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter) to believe that he is the creator of the Big Eyes “waifs.”
Photo Credits: Leah Gallo/The Weinstein Company
Margaret’s interactions with her daughter Jane and her BFF DeeAnn are critical to the success of Big Eyes!