I confess. It has been a long time since I truly felt pure joy in a Tim Burton film. Big Eyes is the real deal. It has wit, charm and a lighthearted touch. Perhaps that is somehow fitting because the tale concerns the profile of an artist. Burton – a longtime Keane collector – highlights the life of a personality that for a brief moment, occupied the attention of popular culture.
I must admit that I’ve always regarded Keane’s portraits as a bit cloying. I’m probably closer to the art house snob depicted by Jason Schwartzman than the thousands who genuinely cherished her work in the 1960s. Her output was never validated by the cognoscenti. Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) offers a gag where people of the future consider Keane to be one of the greatest artists in history. She paints children in a primitive style, defers to her husband and becomes a Jehovah’s Witness. The production could have easily descended into camp and treated her as an object of ridicule – but it never does. Burton goes out of his way to handle his subject with a respect that is unique and kind of admirable. What makes Big Eyes so affecting is that it embraces the artist with an impartiality that makes me understand it through the “eyes” of someone who legitimately appreciates her work.
Tim Burton’s enthusiasm can present an odd topic with a delightful zest for the uninitiated. Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands are two of the director’s best. Those tales couldn’t have been told better by any other director. They are distinctly Burtonian – if I may create/borrow a word. That’s the director’s passion coming through in every scene. Big Eyes is a gorgeous looking film too. The cinematography pops with the color and carefully arranged sets that give weight to a setting. Beneath that rosy exterior though, beats the thwarted aspirations of a would-be artist. The tale of Margaret Keane springs to life with a vibrancy and compassion that I haven’t seen from Burton in years.
“The ‘50s were a great time, if you were a man”. That opening line of Big Eyes sets the stage for Margaret Keane’s dystopia. Felt forced to promote a lie that had her locked in a stuffy room while she produced one painting after another. Margaret created hundreds that were then sold under her husband’s name. And boy did they sell. Margaret Keane captivated the fascination of a public who were drawn to her doe eyed waifs. But the story also acknowledges the marketing genius of Walter Keane. Art is often a mixture of talent as well as timing. Walter had a charismatic gift of gab. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz dazzle in their respective roles. The script presents this all in a most appealing way that eschews the campy derision many have for her compositions in exchange for sincere affection. The mentality succeeds as it made me appreciate her style in a way I had never before. Tim Burton clearly identifies with Margaret Keane and his depiction of her comes from a place of love. I had only a cursory knowledge of her work before. Now I have a desire to learn more. With a biography, that’s the highest praise I can give.