When she was in art school in Nashville after World War II, Peggy Doris Hawkins (later Margaret Keane, played here by the luminous Amy Adams) began painting what would become her signature style — portraits of sad, saucer-eyed waifs, often crying, with no one except an occasional kitten for company. “Eyes,” as Shakespeare said and Margaret liked to quote, “are windows to the soul,” and she longed to have her art touch lots of people.
Alas, even Margaret’s amazing productivity couldn’t break through one of the stoniest walls in the commercial art world at that time — “people just don’t buy lady art.” “What about Georgia O’Keeffe?” Margaret wondered. Oh, she was the exception that proved the rule — and besides, she was the lover of a famous, rich man who mentored her career.
In the late ’50s, Margaret flees an abusive marriage, and she and her daughter land in Beatnik paradise in North Beach, San Francisco. At a weekend art walk, she’s chatted up by fellow exhibitor Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). A real-estate developer by day, Walter claims he studied at the prestigious Beaux-Arts school, which is why he paints so many views of Paris. After a whirlwind romance, Walter persuades Margaret to marry him. As a sweet Southern belle, she has no antennae for a fraudster like Walter, and, as she explains to her worried friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter), “I’m a divorcée with a child to support.”
Walter convinces the owner of the famous Hungry i music/comedy club to let him rent wall space to display his Parisian street scenes. And why not add a few of the paintings his pretty little wife does? They both sign their work “Keane,” so who would care if it’s mere “lady art?”
To everyone’s surprise, the Big Eyes paintings sell like flyaway circus balloons. Walter uses a gullible gossip columnist (Danny Huston) to build up buzz on the Big Eyes art, making Walter a celebrity and putting enormous pressure on Margaret to keep churning out work. So what if serious art critics, especially the New York Times’ James Canady (Terence Stamp), detest Big Eyes? What do ordinary Americans care about the opinions of big-city effetes?
In a stroke of evil genius, Walter transforms the art world. He treats Margaret’s portraits not as precious treasures but as widgets reproducing themselves on an assembly line.
Only one person can have an original Keane painting, but millions can have poster copies. He “takes pictures of the paintings,” a jealous gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman) whines, “and then makes postcards of the pictures — it’s a movement!” Not even a capitalist like Andy Warhol had thought of making money this way.
The Keanes become millionaires. Walter basks in the limelight, not having one ounce of guilt that he is perpetuating one of the biggest art frauds in history. Margaret toils away in anonymity in her upstairs workshop, fearful that Walter will act on his threat to kill her if she breaks her silence. It will be years before she can get justice, and it happens in a legendary courtroom scene.
Scores of other artists imitated Margaret’s work. Even more were influenced by her. One of them was a young Disney animator from Burbank, California. He respected the Big Eyes work as “outsider” art, finding in it encouragement to snub his nose at critics. In time, this animator became film director Tim Burton, whose eerie, irreverent, often creepy style has thrilled audiences in more than a dozen live-action and animated movies, including Edward Scissorhands, (1990), Corpse Bride (2005), and Alice in Wonderland (2010).
As the director of Big Eyes, however, Burton seems to have left his “evil self” on the shelf. The movie is big and amusing, and the shots of streets full of pastel vintage automobiles are worth the price of admission. It’s terrific holiday fare. But the only thing really creepy about Big Eyes is Christoph Waltz’s mesmerizing performance as the insidious con artist Walter Keane. He’s so wonderful that, at the end of the movie, you’re kind of sorry Walter gets his due — because watching him be nasty was so much fun.