Remember those popular Big Eyes paintings from the 60’s? Did you know about the story of art forgery behind it? Some of you will first think that the film Big Eyes is about art. As true as that is, it’s also a drama about art forgery and the ones caught in the middle. This is especially of intrigue to those who remember the ‘big eyes’ paintings from the 60’s.
The film begins with Margaret Ulbrich arriving in San Francisco with her daughter. She has recently divorced her husband and is hoping to make it as an artist. Art is not only her best skill but it’s her one and only skill in terms of employability. At first she’s hired by a furniture factory to paint drawings on children’s furniture. She does drawings of caricatures in a San Francisco market to make extra change.
Soon she catches the attention of a successful ‘artist’ by the name of Walter Keane. He’s impressed with her ‘big eyes’ caricatures she draws. They’re based off the wide eyes of her daughter Jane and Margaret even says that children’s eyes are the windows to their souls. Walter promises Margaret that he can make her art famous. He’s a good salesman as he knows how to sell real estate and his own art: painting of Paris where he claims to have been inspired by the city even though spending a mere week in it. She agrees and the two marry.
This comes as a welcome relief for Margaret as she is threatened to lose custody of Jane because she can’t afford to care for her. This is also a relief for Walter as his paintings of Paris are declining in sales. Soon Walter promotes the big eyes paintings at restaurants. He’s even willing to create phony brawls to stimulate news hype. Whatever he does, it works and the big eyes painting are catching a ton of renown.
However the secret of the success is exposed to Margaret and it’s ugly. Walter is claiming the paintings as his own. As the paintings become more popular and Walter becomes more famous, they become more and more in demand. That leads Walter to keep Amy in a hidden room where she’s to paint all the portraits. She’s practically exiled away from everyone including friends and her own daughter. Further friction grows when Margaret learns the truth about the Paris paintings. They were actually painted by an artist going by S. Cenic. Somehow Walter is able to talk his way out of it.
The real turning point is when the giant painting of a crowd of big-eyed children to be displayed at a pavilion during Expo 1964 is dissed by art critic John Canaday as ‘appalling.’ Keane can’t take it. He tries to stab Canaday but fails. He tried locking Margaret and Jane in a closet and setting it ablaze. Fortunately they escape and find a new life for themselves in Hawaii. However it’s after a visit from two Jehovah’s Witnesses that Margaret is prompted to bring Walter to justice. The trial goes with Walter playing his own attorney and doing a big song and dance for the jury but there comes the moment of truth. The film ends rather conventionally but will leave the audience satisfied justice was done.
One thing we should not forget is that art forgery is nothing new. There have been imposters claiming paintings and other works of art in the past. However this makes for an intriguing story. There are many elements why one would consider this intriguing. One would be people who remember the big eyes painting and still like them to this day. Another would be because of the conniving nature of Walter who knows how to get his way until the score is finally settled. I’m sure there’s something many people can find intriguing with the film to want to see it.
However the film doesn’t make itself too clear about what it is primarily all about. I do give the film credit for showing a story of art forgery and both the artist and scammer. I do give credit for showcasing the thriving and influential San Francisco art scene form the 50’s and 60’s. I also give the film credit about showing just how much of a conniver Walter Keane was to the point he felt he could kill a critic and even connive a judge in the court of law. And I especially give the film credit for showing the mother-daughter relationship involved with the story. In fact that was one of my favorite parts of the film where after Margaret left Walter, Margaret became a typical mother again and Jane became a typical daughter again. However it does leave one to wonder if it was mostly to do about the art or to do about the forgery behind it? It’s very possible to balance those two elements out appropriately on film but I just wonder if it was balanced out right.
Amy Adams did a very good job of portraying Margaret Keane. However I’ve seen better acting performances from her in the past. Christoph Waltz was also very good as the conniving Walter Keane. He succeeds at making you hate Walter and get annoyed with him. However there are times in which I think his role of Walter is a bit too close to his Oscar-winning roles of Hans Landa and King Schultz. Danny Huston also did well in the role of Dick Nolan. However it does seem odd how the narrator of all that’s happening gets so little screen time. There were additional good performances in minor roles from Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartzman.
Tim Burton did a good job of directing a film that doesn’t seem too much like your typical Tim Burton film. Interesting fact is that Burton owns two of Keane’s paintings.
Scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski did a good job with the script even though it lacked consistency and focus. The set designers and costumers did a very good job in setting the scenes to the time of the film. And the score by Danny Elfman also fit the movie well.
Big Eyes is an intriguing look at the artist, the art and the forgery behind it. Even though the story was a bit off in terms of focus to its central theme, it does keep one interested.