I can't see Burton doing this for big bucks. Unlike say Dark Shadows (which I did like, more for the visual texture than script or storytelling (the actors seemed to be having fun)) or the even less defensible Alice in Wonderland (which I also liked, if only because it's not as solemn as its apparent role model, Peter Jackson's endless Lord of the Rings movies (low bar I know)), but with Big Eyes Burton returns to his longtime fascination with marginal Americana, and chooses for his subject a once-notorious, now largely forgotten chapter in the country's pop (I hesitate to say 'art') history.
To whit: Margarete Keane (Amy Adams) is a divorcee who leaves her small-town-minded home in Tennessee for the more liberated climes of San Francisco. She sets up an easel there, meets one Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a fellow artist with con-man charm who convinces her to marry him. Walter starts selling her paintings for her--at one point managing to have them hung in a nightclub--and grows famous by passing the paintings off as his own.
That's the bare bones; Burton fleshes out the story by employing an eccentric visual style--think Vertigo's canted San Francisco streets as directed by David Lynch--and by allowing Waltz to initially seize center stage, as Walter did in real life.
Waltz's Keane is key to Burton's concept, I think. He's loud and funny, on one level an obvious bullshitter, but--here's where the real con comes in--when he's done winking at you and acknowledging "It's an act, you know it I know it, but entertaining, yes?" he's pulled out your calfskin, emptied it of any bills inside, dumped it in the nearest bin. Adams' Margaret is presumably smart enough to realize what's happening...but at that time period and in that kind of (still is) male-dominated society, who's to say she has the self-awareness to know better?
The key scene (which Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski largely invented, but presumably informs their view of the character) is when someone openly asks--in front of both Keanes--who really did the paintings, and there's a pause; Margaret could have should have would have seized the moment but did not. Did she suffer a failure of nerve, did she literally not know what to do? She had the gumption to divorce her first husband--we know she's capable of that much independent action--but actually stepping on the back of her present husband to assume center stage? Not quite fully explained, and I like that--like many momentous moments in one's life, you act or fail to act before you're fully conscious of what you intended, and you're haunted by the memory and consequences accordingly.
Burton and his writers are equally mum about their opinion of Margaret's work, and that's okay too--better than having it rammed down our throats repeatedly as in most biopics. Burton does explicitly show that Margaret is a technically skilled artist, and you gradually realize that he's a believer in the paintings' value, but then he has Terence Stamp's Zod-like art critic John Carnaday declaring otherwise, and gives Stamp the ubercool of an ubermensch to back up his pronouncements. Burton's sympathetic but he's not willing to explicitly present his views just yet (he does have a quote from Andy Warhol at film's start--but as with most Warhol quotes you're not sure if it was sincerely put or a mere put-on).
The film does observe that while Margaret produced the paintings it's Walter who relentlessly promoted them, and Walter who had the kind-of-brilliant pop-culture idea of reproducing her work in massive numbers, flooding the market with cheap copies, both commodifying them and commenting on the commodity culture surrounding them (Walter notes--sincerely, for all we know--that Warhol stole his idea). In a sense the works are at least a collaboration, their success due to the efforts of both. Walter's tragedy is that he wouldn't even acknowledge his wife's contribution; his wife's tragedy is that she never objected.
One might accuse Adams' Margaret of being passive to the point of invisibility but think about it--she does develop a sense of her self, enough that when she finally puts some distance between her and her husband, when she hears his braggadocio through the medium of radio, it's different circumstances and a different woman who responds differently. She does--finally, eventually--come into her own.
I like the film, like the actors in it, like the look; most of all I like the film's reserve, almost as heroic in refraining from giving us too much too soon as Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner (they'd make a splendid double bill). Along with the aforementioned title probably the only two recent biopics (from a collection that includes Selma, American Sniper, and that Stephen Hawking movie) that I really like.
First published in Businessworld 5.28.15