“Big Eyes”
We first meet Margaret (Amy Adams) back in the 1950’s, when Middle American housewives were expected to wear house dresses, stay home with their children, and if they had a talent for painting, say---well, that was an acceptable diversion, perhaps, but only for personal enjoyment, and only if it didn’t interfere with wifely duties and responsibilities.
But Margaret wasn’t like everybody else. She found that life with her husband was so oppressive that she just had to take her daughter and get out. Flee to California , where perhaps people thought a little differently, and allowed others to do so. It wasn’t easy, selling personal portrait caricatures in the park for a buck apiece. She made good likenesses of people, except that her style was to draw bigger-then-lifelike eyes, so that people looked more innocent, vulnerable, and….well, cute. It was out on one of these artist sidewalk sales that she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a painter of impressionistic French street scenes, who dazzles her with his bonhomie. We don’t learn much about her divorce settlement, only about the threat to declare her “an unfit mother” as someone who could not provide a steady home environment for her daughter, so in Walter she finds someone almost instantly ready to provide the kind of apparent stability that the “Father Knows Best” society expected. She brushed aside her own nagging doubts that she didn’t really know much about him. He seemed delighted with her, and with her daughter, and everything else could be worked out, right?
Walter, it turned out, did have some very good qualities. He was a tireless promoter of her work. He found her a venue in a restaurant/bar, where at first he “rented” the walls, and then, when a dispute with the owner happened to produce a fistfight and make the papers, he discovered the old Hollywood maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. People were flocking to see the paintings. Oh, there was this little wrinkle that somehow in the confusion people assumed he was the artist, and he just let them think that, while Margaret simply stayed at home and cranked out her “big eyes” paintings, which were becoming so popular that Walter realized people were stealing the advertising posters, so he hit upon the idea to sell the printed posters. That, in turn, brought about a kind of image franchising that included everything from lunch boxes to stationery, and economically, they were a resounding success.
But there was trouble in Paradise . Margaret wasn’t entirely happy with Walter getting all the credit for her work, but figured that’s what the society expected, and besides, he was a brilliant promoter, and a genius marketer, and a natural schmoozer, which freed her up to do what she loved best: the painting itself. Of course maintaining the subterfuge was hard work, particularly trying to keep it from her daughter, whom she hated lying to, and his daughter, as well, whom she didn’t even know about, but somehow just appeared one day. As usual, Walter had an explanation that sounded reasonable. Just like he had an explanation for why he didn’t bother with his own painting any more, or with his previous real estate career----it was a full-time job just running the “Big Eyes” enterprise.
But Walter become drunk on his own false success, and his arrogant bullying made Margaret feel that she was becoming desperately lonely, and had somehow lost sight of herself. Finding out that he actually stole those French street scenes, and represented someone else’s work as his own, was the last straw. She moved out with her daughter again. Except Walter’s not giving up the Goose that laid the Golden Egg so easily. He sues, claiming he’s the true artist and deserves the rights to all the commercial sales, and their residuals. And that creates a predictable media circus.
The story sounds unlikely, until we actually see pictures of the “real” Margaret and Walter during the credits, and though neither is exactly the paragon of virtue here, still, the story of their long-standing deception of all of us carries a certain curious interest. The fact that it took a professional critic to point out the kitsch, and a Christian evangelist to instill the idea of truth-telling, just adds more irony to this strange unvarnished tale of cloying Americana .
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Parish Associate, Woodhaven Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas