There are many elements (mostly visual) that I have admired in Tim Burton’s films over the years, but I haven’t enjoyed one of his movies as a complete work as much as Big Eyes since Ed Wood, which is still my favorite among his films.
In a way, the stories are inverse narratives.
Ed Wood examines the eponymous character from the outside in as we look at the director of such widely reviled films as Plan 9 From Outer Space who strives against great odds and with limited talent for creative expression.
The scene in which Wood (Johnny Depp) commiserates with Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) is remarkable for showcasing a lovely paradox: they are battling some of the same obstacles and for similar reasons, but the expression of their creative visions could not be more different; the two directors are at once exactly the same and completely different.
If you can accept the paradoxical nature of things and appreciate the inverse narrative, you’ll understand why I see Margaret Keane simultaneously as one of the most oppressed women I’ve seen on the screen lately and also a bold, feminist icon.
Much is made of the fact at the beginning of the film that Margaret (the sublime Amy Adams) packs up her daughter and her art supplies in the 1950s and leaves her “suffocating” husband back when women just didn’t do that.
She finds a job and begins making a new life with her daughter in San Francisco. Only when her husband threatens a custody fight does she abruptly marry a charming amateur artist/real estate developer, Walter Keane (nobody plays delusional like Christoph Waltz).
Always smarmy to the viewer, it is easy to see why Margaret is sucked into the relationship with Keane, who very soon begins capitalizing on and taking credit for her distinctive Big Eyes paintings.
The duality that Burton plays with in both Ed Wood and in Big Eyes is complex and compelling.
While we watch Wood as outsiders and both empathize with and cringe at his artistic efforts, we are drawn into Margaret Keane’s interiority, celebrate her efforts to resist, understand the constraints and reasons she does not break free sooner or more forcefully, and indulge in the ways her journey is emblematic of the path taken by so many women during the Second Wave of feminism.
While I did not find the film as intense or inspiring as Wild, another film in theaters currently, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, the performances, and – not surprisingly – the art direction, which evokes Vertigo, makes great use of foreshadowing with a Perry Mason clip, and calls to mind various delights from Burton’s visual treasure trove.
But, the real selling point: it’s impossible not to pull for Margaret Keane.