Big Eyes

There’s that old cliché that states that if it isn’t a documentary film, then the facts don’t have to be accurate. Oh yeah? How would a biopic on Amelia Earhart explain her riding skateboards while fighting the Peloponnesian army? Things just as outrageous find their way into today’s films and the only response is, “Well, it isn’t a documentary!”

Someday there may well be a film made about the life and work of Margaret Keane, the kitsch painter of bug-eyed kids that littered five-and-dime stores during the ’60s and ’70s. But Big Eyes, the film by director Tim Burton, isn’t it!

Instead, he’s seen fit to use this woman’s extraordinary life to perpetuate a feminist denunciation of male oppression at a time when men ran the world, and by so doing, he turns her husband Walter Keane into a lecherous, conniving, talentless weasel who takes full credit for his wife’s art!

What we know of their relationship stems from testimony at the court case when Margaret sought to have her name designated as the sole painter. Notorious for being a big fan, Tim Burton commissioned her to paint his onetime girlfriend, Lisa Marie, so he may be a little close to his source to be objective. Truth is – and truth does matter since these were actual people – more than likely the kid paintings were collaborations between the two.

As a southern girl, Margaret attended evening art classes. Walter had attended the Grand Chaumiere and he was a World War II veteran, which is only vital to the story because he has a reasonable answer as to the inspiration for these huge-eyed kids in the paintings.

In the film, Walter takes credit for the entire package. “So what’s your inspiration?” he’s asked, and responds that it was the war orphans he encountered at the end of the war! Margaret wasn’t in the war, so if his description isn’t accurate, what’s her answer? Left out of this movie, for one thing!

Big Eyes puts forth the proposition that Walter, though he may indeed have been a jerk, was nothing more than a talentless con artist. It’s suggested that he may have painted over another artist’s signature, a “C. Enic” or some such, taking credit for that person’s art also! While researching the Keanes’ story for this review, I spoke with two people who had actual personal contact with Walter Keane, and neither could verify this happening.

The rumor based on Walter’s other paintings was that it was his background art and Margaret’s waifish faces that made up these paintings. Plus, would these iconic paintings, which have been an influence on everything from the Power Puff Girls (where incidentally there is a character named Ms. Keane) to anime, have survived as anything other than ’60s kitsch if not for the marketing savvy of Walter?

He is half of the equation, yet by casting Christoph Waltz, an actor mostly associated with playing villains, Walter comes across like Captain Hook with a hint of Albert DeSalvo!

But it was Walter’s entrepreneurial skill that gave the Keane story any kind of edge to warrant this movie in the first place, yet Burton treats him so shoddy as though this was a soft money contribution to a fabricated “war on women”!

What’s repugnant is that without Walter’s intervention, Margaret would’ve likely remained on a park bench drawing her long-neck giraffe caricatures if she’d not followed foresight into the gallery.

It wasn’t her kids with their dichotomized glare – half angst-ridden but hopeful headed toward an unsure adult world – that was reviled! What infuriated the art world was that Walter had bucked the system. It was how brazenly he passed their circles, creating his own venue, his own media buzz regardless of any legitimate critical input. Unlike the Jackson Pollocks who played to the whims of the critics, Walter thumbed his nose and equated art with business!

I love him for doing that!

During its initial release back in the ’70s, in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, about a 20th century guy who awakens in the future, a Keane painting is shown for an explanation because they believe it to be by one of the greatest artists in history! Even Woody Allen can stumble into the truth, so why can’t Tim Burton?

There’s more here than meets the big eyes.