ArtHouse has hosted several Tim Burton screenings over the Christmas period but Big Eyes is far from his usual gothic horror and fantasy blockbuster. Nor is it a trademark Burton film about odd outsider men. Instead it’s the extraordinary story of a real life (and living) woman whose bizarre situation can only be explained by the dominant ideas about the proper place for women in 1950s America.
After she walked out on her first husband Margaret (Amy Adams), together with her young daughter faced a hostile world as a penniless single mother. She swiftly accepted a proposal of marriage from successful estate agent and charmer Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). What’s more it was also a hostile world for women in art and Margaret was also an artist. People didn’t take ‘lady art’ seriously and certainly wouldn’t buy it, and in this distorted world of gender inequality, there was some sort of logic to handing over ownership of her art to her husband. Margaret reluctantly allowed him to promote it as his own and then became trapped in the suffocating lie she helped create.
Her paintings of big eyed children are not to everyone’s taste and were certainly not to the taste of the established art world, with New York Times critic John Canaday (played imperiously by Terence Stamp) describing Margaret’s work as an ‘atrocity’. But it was an ‘infinity of kitsch’ that generated huge earnings and mass popular success and Andy Warhol, for one, recognised merit in it. Tim Burton, himself, is reputed to be a collector and interestingly, some critics have seen a parallel between the public and critical responses to Burton’s own work.
But whether or not the unsold black streaky paintings in the empty upmarket gallery are any more ‘good art’ than Margaret’s sentimental work is irrelevant to the film. And anyway, aren’t women just as entitled as men to produce bad art? Another thought-provoking question arises when Walter is asked to justify his choice of subject matter. Is it more acceptable for women to paint children than men?
By all accounts Walter was a larger than life egocentric, irritating and self-promoting charlatan, and it’s possible to argue that Christoph Waltz’s performance was an accurate, rather than cartoonish representation. Check out the over-the-top, though admittedly amusing, courtroom scene at the end of the film. But it’s a performance that threatens to overwhelm the film, and is in direct contrast to Amy Adams’ subtle and sensitive portrayal of the passive, but ultimately determined Margaret.
The film is not without some trademark Burton fantasy effects, but most of all it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking, raising some interesting questions about the nature of art, taste and established snobberies, as well as portraying the barriers women had to (and of course still have to) face to establish themselves in the world of art.