“I’m Dick Nolan,” says the first voiceover we hear in the opening of Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes.” “I make things up for a living.” (Pause.) “I’m a reporter.”
You’re on notice right away – false notice, it turns out. What’s indicated is that Burton is going to play around a bit in “Big Eyes,” with his screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who wrote his “Ed Wood”).
Later in Burton’s surprisingly no-nonsense realism about Walter and Margaret Keane, the great kitschmakers of the last century’s middle years, Walter Keane complains of Andy Warhol that he “stole my act.”
And you know what? He sort of did.
I remember people who weren’t ashamed to have prints of big-eyed Keane waif paintings on the walls of their family dining rooms – until the word of their unseemly and soulless mass production began to leak out and critics deigned to comment on them and blasted them to kingdom come as the brazen kitsch that they will always be.
After that, for pity’s sake, no self-respecting American culture vulture was going to have a Keane painting – or poster or print – on their walls. It almost instantly turned into an advertisement for one’s hopeless lack of higher taste.
Which, of course, became just the thing for all those people who might be sick to death of all the fancy schmancy folk telling everybody else what they should like anyway.
The matter of their quality – or, rather, their lack – was settled with considerable dispatch in the story of the Keanes.
It turned out that there was another Keanian matter of far greater drama that Burton has turned into the most straight-ahead piece of cinematic realism he has yet attempted. It turns out in his maturity that Burton is still a bit of a sentimental old art student and he has a weird sneaking respect for Margaret Keane, who is still very much with us at the age of 87.
The grand Keane story that Burton tells us is one of feminist empowerment, the one about the woman who was the real painter in the family finally and irrevocably wresting all credit for painting her big-eyed waifs away from her big-talking, art-hustling, fraudulent blunderbuss of a husband, Walter.
It all actually happened in a quietly hilarious courtroom paint-off during which it was revealed that Walter, the family’s indefatigable promoter, credit-stealer and sexist jerk, couldn’t paint a lick and that Margaret, bless her big, sloppy heart, could practically turn out sad-eyed waifs at the drop of a credit card (or judge’s gavel).
It’s here, frankly, that I wondered a bit if we might not have been a little better off with the old Burton, the dark visionary with the chutzpah to postulate flat out in “Ed Wood” that the cataclysmically awful filmmaker was the equal, in his way, of directors Orson Welles, Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.
It seems to me that Burton might have recognized that vain, self-inflating old fraud Walter might have been just a wee bit right in his claim that Warhol stole his act.
Sure, Walter couldn’t paint for beans. But he could promote the bejabbers out of someone who could. “Marketing,” we call it now. Boy, could that fellow market.
For those of us who have long suspected hype as being one of our greatest native American popular arts, there is a claim to be made for Walter, scandalously lying and phony fraud that he was.
But Burton now stands revealed as a man with a secret big and soft and sentimental heart who wanted to make a film lionizing the empowerment struggle of Margaret, the real creator of a near-perfect form of American kitsch. (Who did paint those poker-playing dogs, after all?)
Burton’s cast is prime. You will, quite appropriately love big-eyed actress Amy Adams as Margaret, the woman whose “art” was artistic anathema in higher circles but widely beloved anyway. And you will marvel at Christoph Waltz as Walter, so transparently consumed by petty vanity as he simultaneously exploits and condescends to his wife while, at the same time, supplies all the salesman’s crassness that Warhol would, indeed, later turn into a challenge to every aesthetic assumption.
Danny Houston plays the San Francisco reporter of slipshod integrity who discovered Margaret’s big-eyed paintings and who cherished a good story and, most deliciously of all, Terence Stamp plays a particularly frost-hearted version of the New York Times’ very real art critic John Canaday, a hanging judge of a critic if ever there was one. (What casting, I tell you. Stamp still possesses the coldest, angriest eyes you’re ever likely to see on a movie screen.)
It’s a very entertaining – and endearing – feminist fable for our time. So why do I suspect that the older and wilder Burton might have found Walter the Grotesque Fraud to be a gifted creator of a decidedly peculiar but undeniable sort?
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Terence Stamp, Danny Houston
Director: Tim Burton
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and adult themes.
The Lowdown: Artist Margaret Keane finally begins to object to her talentless husband’s appropriation of her popular big-eyed kitsch paintings.