I’ve been a big fan of the big-eyed waif paintings that are signed KEANE ever since I first spotted the vintage artwork that haunted the walls of Jabberjaw and was paid tribute to by the covers of Redd Kross’s totally rockin’ Third Eye LP (painted by my friend Vicki Berndt) and the bittersweet If I Were a Carpenter compilation (featuring Redd Kross, Sonic Youth, and Shonen Knife).
But while I was familiar with the vintage artwork, I never really knew the story behind it. I have a copy of Walter Keane’s vanity-pressed autobiography, in which he shamelessly touts his art, his ladies, and his celebrity friends, but wasn’t it his wife Margaret who did the painting? Wasn’t there some sort of lawsuit? Not easy to find out in the pre-Internet days.
Tim Burton’s new movie, Big Eyes, explains everything, and I was stoked that Wendy and I could catch an advance screening last night at the historic Ace Hotel. And as if free drinks and popcorn weren’t enough, the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Kraszewski introduced the movie and brought out Margaret and her daughter Jane before the movie started.
I was wondering how the movie would compare to Ed Wood, the award-winning biopic that Alexander and Kraszewski had previously wrote for Burton. Big Eyes is a lot more direct in style and storytelling. There are surreal touches but it is a straightforward, character-driven, indie flick about real people–and not a psychedelic trip or fantasy. In the post-screening Q&A, screenwriters said that it was made for less money and on a tighter schedule than Ed Wood. And it is Burton’s most indie movie since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
Alexander and Kraszewski recalled the first time they had lunch with Keane and and how the soft-spoken artist shared detailed memories of her late husband’s controlling ways but also gave him credit for being as ingenious as he was charismatic. His energy made her art more popular than it ever would be have been otherwise.
The screenwriters shared that the original plan was for them to direct the movie and for Burton to produce. But when there was a chance to get Waltz on board, they said that would switch positions to make it happen. After Margaret first saw the movie, she said that Christoph Waltz channeled her ex-husband’s flamboyance as well as his flaws perfectly and it took days for her to get over it.
The screenwriters also said that Big Eyes was a unique challenge for them because, unlike Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, or Man on the Moon, the over-the-top dreamer was the antagonist and not the protagonist. The straight-laced and subdued painter submitted to her husband’s threats and pressure for their business’s sake and her daughter’s well-being, and her gradually gaining strength to leave him and tell the truth provides the subtle and powerful plot.
Actress Amy Adams admitted that she initially turned down the role during an earlier attempt to turn the screenplay into a movie, citing that she was looking for stronger roles at the time. But after becoming a parent, Adams gained new understanding and appreciation of the artist’s willingness to do anything to provide for her daughter. (Meanwhile, Margaret said that she had not heard of Amy Adams when the actress signed on to the project.)
Adams’s role is a lot less fun than Waltz’s. He gets all the good lines and gets to play a charmer, a dreamer, and an asshole. But her enduring and gaining strength feels very genuine onscreen, and in the screenwriters’ estimation parallels the empowerment of women during the ’50s and ’60s. But Margaret showed a sense of humor, too. The audience gave a huge round of applause when the still-active painter joked that she directed the movie but Tim Burton is getting the credit.
Check out the Big Eyes trailer and then see it on a big screen when it opens on Christmas!