Plot San Francisco, the 1950s. Margaret Ulbricht is a struggling single mother of Jane, selling her paintings of big-eyed children in a park art fair. Here she meets charismatic artist Walter Keane, whom she soon marries. Walter rents a space at a jazz club to show their work, where Margaret’s portraits prove popular but Walter’s Parisian street scenes don’t sell. Walter takes credit for Margaret’s paintings and opens a gallery dedicated to ‘his’ work. He also produces and sells cheap poster reproductions of the paintings. Walter uses his influence to get a commission for Unicef’s Hall of Education at the 1964 World’s Fair, but it is lambasted by the leading art critic of The New York Times. Walter attacks the critic at a party and the painting is removed before the opening. Margaret discovers a crate of Walter’s street scenes, signed by another person, but he continues to insist that he painted them. Jane discovers their secret, and Walter, drunk, aggressively threatens Margaret and Jane with lit matches. Margaret and Jane move to Hawaii. Before granting her a divorce, Walter demands that she paint another 100 paintings for him, which she does. Later, Margaret announces the truth about the paintings during a radio interview. Walter retaliates by having a story published accusing Margaret of being a drunk. Margaret sues Walter for slander. In count, the judge gives Walter and Margaret an hour to complete a painting. Walter feigns an arm injury; Margaret wins the case (adapted from Lucca 69).
Film note A biopic of 1960s pop artist Margaret Keane, Big Eyes is an example of how to combine independent and personal filmmaking with the commercialism of 21st century Hollywood. The film grapples with question of the legitimacy of art in an era of increasing industrialization and mass production. Initially trapped by her marriage and a patriarchal society, Margaret is emancipated by the end of the film, providing a hopeful feminist perspective relevant to the 1960s context and the present day.
Authorship and 21st Century Hollywood The director of films such as Edward Scissorhands (1990), Sweeney Todd (2008), and Alice in Wonderland (2010), Tim Burton is often described as “eccentric”, “macabre”, and a “self-confessed weirdo” (Tasker 73). However, Big Eyes is something of a departure from this caricature. The film is significantly less ‘Burton-esque’ than his previous work because it does not rely on fantasy, focusing instead on a real artist’s life and keeping “surrealism and quirk to a minimum” in favour of a realist aesthetic (Zeisler). Yet, despite the more naturalistic style and conventional narrative, Big Eyes does retain some common thematic elements that we might associate with Burton’s work. The film bears notable similarities, for example, to Ed Wood (1994), a biopic also written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander. Like Wood, Margaret is a ‘creative wannabe’ and outcast, a theme also found in a number of his other films.
Margaret Keane’s paintings have a personal resonance for Burton; he first encountered them during his childhood. He is now a long-time collector, and commissioned her to paint his former partner, Helena Bonham Carter, and his dog. In an interview for The New York Times, he confessed that he was drawn to the paintings because he found them disturbing and was fascinated by their popularity with the general public despite criticism from the art world (D’Arcy). The polarization of popular and critical responses perhaps resonates with Burton as a result of the reception of some of his own work: commercial films such as Alice In Wonderland and Dark Shadows (2012) were financially successful but encountered negative press, whereas personal works like Big Fish (2003) were praised by critics but were less successful with audiences. As a filmmaker more than familiar with the making of popular, if not always critically acclaimed, art (McIntyre), Burton’s feelings are perhaps encapsulated in the Andy Warhol statement which opens the film: “I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it”. It is surely gratifying to Burton, that considering Big Eyes’ low budget ($10m) it enjoyed relative box-office success, grossing almost $16m worldwide, and was well received by critics and audiences alike.
Big Eyes aesthetic differs from Burton’s norm as he did not cast actors who usually collaborate with him (such as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter). Instead, he works with new actors; Amy Adams as Margaret, and Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane. This choice proved successful; both earned Golden Globe nominations, and the press praised their performances and the film’s in-depth characterisation (Kermode). Adams’ quiet expressiveness makes the character of Margaret simultaneously spirited, independent and damaged (Coffin), revealing the struggles faced by US women in the 1950s and 60s. Initially, Waltz plays Walter as charming and intelligent, almost heroic, but later becoming maniacal and controlling (an extreme caricature of a 1960s husband in a patriarchal society).
Burton is concerned with creating a visual impact by portraying emotions through mise-en-scène in Big Eyes. This is apparent in the only scene in the film in which he uses fantastical elements. Soon after the commercial success of her paintings (under Walter’s name) Margaret goes to the supermarket feeling overwhelmed and lost. The subjective fantastical nature of the scene is communicated through over-exposed bright colours and slow-paced non-diegetic music. After seeing a shelf full of objects decorated with copies of her paintings, she becomes overwhelmed by the mass production her work, and by the extent of Walter’s deception. She sees people around her staring at her with magnified and intensely fixing eyes which resemble her painting style. The scene vividly indicates Margaret’s fragile and hallucinatory emotional state and her increasing disassociation with the world. The scene carries an additional emotional weight set against the realism of the surrounding narrative and allows us to gain insight into Margaret’s subjective trauma and distress. The scene is particularly effective as Burton uses Keane’s own artistic style as influence for the fantastical and disorienting mise-en-scène.
The ‘earth’ without ‘art’ is just ‘eh’ The 1950s and 1960s in the US was a period characterized by the emergence of pop art. Reacting to hyper-commodification, pop art mirrored the mass production and consumption of the era. This led to debates about whether pop art embraces capitalism or critiques it. Some high-art critics who argue that paintings should be instructional and ennobling (Johnston 6) consider pop art as something created only for the sake of popularity and commercial gain; indeed, this is a criticism cinema itself has long faced. Pop art’s defenders, however, argue that it made art accessible to everyone. Big Eyes explores the contradictions and controversy behind the success of pop art through Margaret’s story. Top-selling artist for most of a decade, and pioneer of the pop art style, Margaret painted images of mournful, dark and doe-eyed waif children. They gained international popularity, launching a wave of ‘Keanabilia’ when Walter Keane sold kitsch reproductions on a mass scale after claiming to be the artist.
Keane’s paintings became a sensation among celebrities: Joan Crawford called Margaret “the most fabulous painter” (D’Arcy), and, in addition to Tim Burton, rock stars Marylyn Manson and Matthew Sweets, and the comedian Jerry Lewis collected her paintings. Some of her works also appear in films such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Sleeper (1973) and Wayne’s World (1992). However, what boosted the commercial success of the art was Walter’s recognition that the general public were more interested in buying cheap reproductions than the paintings themselves. His shrewdness lies in his mass marketing of her art in a popular movement – proliferating his wife’s works via posters, postcards, coffee table books, mugs and refrigerator magnets, all sold en masse. This theme is introduced in the opening shot of the film, which shows identical posters of Margaret’s paintings being printed like a newspaper, as part of a factory assembly line. This shot emphasises the mechanism of the printing machines, thereby establishing Big Eyes’ description of the thin line between art and commercial reproduction. The development of mass-market kitsch – like those produced by Walter – can be understood as a response to a consumerist society which the film explores through a debate staged across its different characters’ viewpoints and experiences. For instance, Terence Stamp plays critic John Canaday who finds it absurd that one of Keane’s paintings is displayed in the grand pavilion of the Hall of Education, and calls the artist a “hula hoop” who will not go away. Later, he disparagingly questions why anyone would want to claim credit for the work. Similarly, the owner of an art gallery refuses to hang Margaret’s paintings because he does not consider them “art”. The film mocks the characters who dismiss her paintings by representing them as pretentious and loud in comparison to Margaret’s quiet humbleness. By contrast an Italian film star is enchanted by the paintings and calls them beautiful masterpieces. Many other members of the public are similarly touched and captivated by them, responses which the film takes care to show as meaningful and authentic.
The film reveals how the poignancy of the big-eyed paintings came from Margaret’s deep emotional connection with her work. Through the children’s eyes one feels, inter alia, Margaret’s pain and unhappiness at being imprisoned by the secrecy of her authorship, and loss of identity stemming from the deception of her friends and daughter. This is clear when she reveals herself as the artist; her paintings adopt a happier shade, becoming brighter and more colourful. Burton highlights Margaret’s emotional link to her paintings by making the waifs characters in their own right: a method of expressing Margaret’s condition of imprisonment, which she is unable to articulate verbally. Her paintings simultaneously become an epitome of her emotional prison, and her respite from captivity. Burton captures this ambiance through the film’s mise-en-scène. In an intimate scene where Margaret is secretly painting in the attic (to prevent her daughter from discovering the truth), she is shot in a close-up, framed by light from a window in an otherwise dark and gloomy space. The framing highlights her feeling of confinement and imprisonment, whilst simultaneously capturing a moment of peace and intimacy between her and her work: the use of a yellow lens filter creates an ambience of melancholia but also hope. When Walter enters the attic to check on her, he is positioned in the shadows and gloom of the attic, contrasting with Margaret’s illumination by the sunlight. The framing and use of light in this scene demonstrate the extent to which Walter is the cause of Margaret’s emotional and physical entrapment.
It’s a man’s world The marginalisation that Margaret’s pop art faces in a pretentious high art world is also reflected in her struggles as a single mother and female artist in a sexist and patriarchal society. Big Eyes explores the severity of Margaret’s situation at a time when women were considered inferior to men in the workplace and domestically. When she arrives in San Francisco with Jane, the film emphasises how women were expected to stay at home in their domestic roles as mothers and wives. During a job interview, the interviewer is surprised at her willingness to work, and he asks if her husband agrees to such a thing. This emphasises the abnormality of her situation, and the judgement which she receives as a result. Mid-twentieth century, in order to be respected, women were forced to conform to the conservative values of a united family, whilst quietly accepting their husbands’ authority. When Margaret is hired (out of pity), a close up gradually zooms out to reveal her painting furniture in a room full of men. The mise-en-scène therefore exaggerates the discomfort of her situation by presenting her as woman working in a man’s world: this uncomfortable yet humorous shot subtly critiques societal sexism and patriarchy.
Big Eyes also highlights female marginalization in the art world. As art dealer Iwan Wirth notes, it is “a constant source of disappointment to see the discrepancy in prices between outstanding female artists and their male counterparts” (Johnson). This is evidenced in an early scene, in which Margaret sells paintings and live drawings in a park art fair in order to make a living. Her stall is next to Walters: he sells a street scene for $35; Margaret, on the other hand, draws a personal portrait of a young boy for only $1. Walter later uses this to his advantage, convincing Margaret to go along with his deceit over ownership.
Certainly, in the period the film is set women had very few rights, and this is demonstrated in Big Eyes through Margaret’s ex-husband’s attempt to gain custody of their daughter. When he learns that she is painting to support Jane, he takes legal action by claiming that an artist single mother is not fit to raise a child alone. The only way she is able to keep Jane is by marrying Walter. Ironically, by marrying Walter she loses even more rights, and is soon repressed and imprisoned both physically and psychologically by the marriage. This theme continues throughout the film; Walter consistently uses his position as a man, and her husband, to undermine Margaret’s confidence and exploit her artistic talents. When Margaret discovers that Walter is claiming her paintings as his own, he insists that no one will take “lady art” seriously, and that buyers were willing to pay more if they thought he had painted them. Given the strong patriarchy of US society, and her misguided trust in her husband’s authority, she believes him. She is forced to lie to her daughter and best friend about her authorship and her husband’s honesty. She paints locked in the house’s attic, like a prisoner, where no one is allowed in. This leads her to a mental breakdown, driving her to depression and anxiety and a complete loss of identity.
Margaret eventually fights to reclaim her identity: she breaks free from the lies which imprison her, reclaiming authorship of her work. She also takes responsibility for her silence and complicity, refusing to be a victim. Big Eyes represents a piece of feminist filmmaking as Margaret embarks on “a journey of self-discovery and empowerment” and is shown as a “genuine, self-effacing proto feminist pioneer” (Hornaday 2014). Her self-confidence at the end of the film can be considered a metaphor for the rise of the women’s movement, and acceptance of pop artists (Ryzik). Burton’s films often feature strong and interesting female characters, usually unconventional and feminist. Ann Hornaday considered Alice in Wonderland a feminist re-telling of a well-known story (2010). In this respect Margaret’s journey is comparable to Alice’s, as she fights to recover her identity, despite a patriarchal society.
Big Eyes was released in a year considered not only that of the woman, but of feminism: the word was ubiquitous in the media, supported by well-known celebrities. 2014 saw the launch of Emma Watson’s “HeforShe” campaign advocating gender equality, the “Carry That Weight” student protest against rape, Beyoncé’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in front of the word “FEMINIST”, and Barack Obama’s “It’s On Us” campaign, urging both men and women to stand against sexual assault. These examples demonstrate the mainstreaming of women’s issues which made it possible for feminism to be more prominent in popular culture. Hollywood itself is still complicit, however, and continues “to marginalize women and women’s issues while both subtly and forthrightly privileging men and masculinity” (Benshoff and Griffin 301). This is an issue which Big Eyes engages with through the bizarre and uplifting story of Margaret Keane’s fight against domestic abuse and patriarchy. The film recounts historical events, but with an urgent contemporary relevance. Margaret’s personal story is intended to inspire contemporary women to fight discrimination and assert their creative expression, overcoming obstacles at home and in the workplace.
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Written by Charlotte Fuga (2017); edited by Elinor Jenkins (2020), Queen Mary, University of London
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