Tim Burton’s ‘Big Eyes’ Takes On Biggest Art Cover-Up Of All Time

As a longtime fan of Tim Burton and any plot even remotely about conspiracies (embarrassing, I know), I couldn’t wait to see Big Eyes. Being an art film, recounting the infamous tale of alleged plagiarist Walter Keane, I was even more excited as I sat in the theatre, taking in the trailers and chomping contently on Sour Patch Kids.

For those who don’t know, Walter Keane’s paintings of big-eyed children were hugely popular in the 1960’s, hanging in the homes of many celebrities and becoming a recognizable part of pop culture.

Thank You, Margaret Keane (2006)
Thank You, Margaret Keane (2006)

But here’s the rub, it turns out the paintings were not in fact painted by Walter. His wife, Margaret Keane, was the actual artist of the family, but for reasons the film delves into, Walter managed to convince her to allow him to take credit for the work. And so for over 10 years, Walter built a career and following based on work done by his wife — the biggest known art cover-up of all time! Finally, in 1974, Margaret sued her then ex-husband for slander, which culminated in a court room “paint off,” where the judge asked each alleged artist to complete a painting then and there. Anyway, I won’t say much more about the plot so as not to spoil to movie.

An aspect of the film I found particularly intriguing was watching Walter market his wife’s art. Yes, he was plagiarising by taking credit, but it was still fascinating to see how he was able to use marketing to rise to fame, despite widespread art world criticism of his pancake-eyed waifs. Not surprisingly, marketing genius, Andy Warhol, had something to say about it, “I think what Keane has done is just terrific,” he told Life magazine in 1965. “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” The fact is, so many people like it because Walter really put it out there! Opening his own gallery, being super vocal about his work in public (even to the point of physically fighting to stand up for it — can you say publicity?) and printing countless posters of the work to sell cheaply in drug stores and super markets. These tactics may seem obvious now, but at the time they were novel in the art world. Keane understood that art could be a commodity. Perhaps it was this aspect of the so-called artist that so intrigued Warhol.

Aside from a gripping story, stellar performances drive the movie forward. Christoph Waltz‘s Walter Keane oozes sleazy charm, and is simultaneously terrifying and pitiful. Amy Adams‘ Margaret, which won the actress a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a musical of comedy, reminds us how personal one’s own artwork is as she struggles to cope not only with an overbearing husband, but also the loss of her work being hers. When she finally decides to stand up for herself, I almost wanted to stand from my seat and cheer her on. Tim Burton, per usual, has not disappointed.

If you love film, or art, or both, do not miss Big Eyes.

Big Eyes is playing across theatres nationwide.

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