The Theatre at Ace Hotel
In Big Eyes, director Tim Burton goes easy on his usual bombast and delivers a magnificent period drama. Amy Adams stars in her most demanding role to date. Those of us who grew up during the 1960s will remember Margaret Keane’s ubiquitous “big eyes” paintings.
Most of us didn’t know the history behind them. Until now.
As they discussed at the Ace Hotel, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski [[Ed Wood (1994)] did extensive research. San Francisco artist Keane, who made a rare appearance, confirmed the accuracy of the film. In the Q&A, she acknowledged that her husband Walter was a marketing genius. As played by Christoph Waltz, he’s also a near psychopath. Some critics have complained that Waltz’s performance is overdone. However, wife Margaret says that it was just like Walter.
As the film opens, it’s the 1950s. Margaret (Adams) leaves an abusive marriage, taking her young daughter (Delaney Raye) and drives across the country. She winds up in beat era San Francisco faced with the problem of every aspiring artist, how to make a living. Walter (Waltz), a Realtor with artistic ambitions, at first seems like a godsend. He’s a brilliant salesman, but his methods become a point of contention between them.
Before the topless craze, San Francisco’s North Beach was a haven for jazz clubs and coffee houses. The Keane’s get started displaying their wares at the Hungry i. As played by John Polito, club owner Enrico Banducci is a tough negotiator but eventually comes around. The production design by Rick Heinrichs, art direction supervised by Chris August and set decoration by Shane Vieau are superbly done to recreate the beloved era.
Critics from the major dailies have been surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) lukewarm to the movie. In The Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey writes:
Everywhere in the film are those Keane eyes — hugely dark, impossibly sad — framed on walls, showing in galleries, emerging, as we watch, on canvas in Margaret’s studio, behind closed doors, so no other eyes could see. But this portrait of a woman on the verge — of success, of suppression, of submission, of rebellion — is never fully realized. For all of the turmoil around her, Margaret is too often stationed in front of a canvas in silent concentration. As was the case in the artist’s real life, her huckster husband, Walter, is allowed to hog the spotlight . . . Perhaps some of the tiptoeing around Margaret, who is still alive and painting in real life, is due to Burton’s inability to shake the sense that those eyes were watching him.
The New York Times’ A. O. Scott was slightly more charitable. He describes the film as
A horror movie tucked inside a domestic drama wrapped up in a biopic . . . The world is an unfriendly place for a single mother, and the city, shot in bright, saturated colors (by Bruno Delbonnel), has a lurid creepiness that suggests Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, an impression underlined by Ms. Adams’s blond, slightly chilly vulnerability . . . Ms. Adams’s performance is sensitive and subtle, but the film can’t quite figure out what to do with her character’s passivity. Trying to do Margaret justice, Mr. Burton can’t prevent himself (and Mr. Waltz) from upstaging her.
Burton’s Vertigo references can hardly be helped given the San Francisco setting. Margaret, though, is quite different from either Madeleine or Judy, neither a tramp nor a femme fatale. She’s closer to the artist Chris, the heroine of Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono, another woman ahead of her time.
I also see Margaret’s supposed passivity differently. When she finally finds her voice it’s as if she’d been playing the old Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope trick all along.