Big Eyes Movie Review: The Business Of Art And Pre-Feminist Stuck-Home Syndrome

Setting the stage for mid-20th century female oppression playing out prior to the women’s movement – as well as in the media – in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, is Danny Huston’s voiceover narrator doing the late San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan, and subversively cutting to the chase. And all at the same time delivering perhaps the best movie line of the year: “I make things up for a living – I’m a reporter.”

Which could not be more to the point, in deciphering through quite metaphorically candid Big Eyes, a financially compulsive US consumer society harboring a dark side just beneath the giddy, deplorable, culturally embedded deceptive commercialism dominating everything. And connected in this case, to domestic violence primarily psychological in nature visited upon the populist artist Margaret Keane. Who was pressured by mid-20th century white middle class limitations placed on women, to essentially collaborate as a component of domestic security and well-being, in her own oppression. And actually, pretty much nothing new, if one considers throughout human history the many women like George Eliot who took male names to have equal access to the privilege of creativity and public recognition. Along with that well known, sadly often repeated rhetorical question historically speaking, why are there no women artists?

Amy Adams projects an alternately subtle and stinging emotional and ethical ambivalence as Margaret Keane, deferring to her arrogant con-man mate Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), when he assures her that attributing her popular paintings to him instead, is a prudent business move that will substantially enrich their coffers. Which it does.

But this Faustian deception as ambivalent accomplice, driven by her own insecurities as a woman and yearning for a safe haven in a female-demeaning and dismissive world at the time, ironically further entrenches her own invisibility as an artist and human being. And admirably, Burton doesn’t simplify the gender based conflict here by opposing a stereotypical female victim with her male victimizer. But rather probes all the self-critical ambiguous issues in between, in crafting a kind of canvas of his own pitting stifled rebellion against embarrassing expediency.

Big Eyes can also claim distinction for probing a less traditionally scrutinized component of domestic violence against women that leaves no physical scars, but destroys countless lives as well – mental and emotional abuse and domination. And perhaps best described in this case, as the Stay-Home Syndrome. And deferring to a husband as dictatorial decision maker, however self-destructive. Though in two instances that might be referred to as sorrowfully sequelized though ultimately triumphant in real life as well, Margaret is seen fleeing two unseemly spouses down the nearest highway – destination scary single motherhood – with her paintings and her child in the back seat in tow.

Then there’s possibly Burton’s own very personal exploration here, of the business of art. In other words, Walter Keane as symbolic of Hollywood, and the movie industry that aggressively shoves aside any notion of art – when not exploiting and taking credit for it – in the parasitic pursuit of profit. And if this was in fact on Burton’s mind as troubling creative subtext, all power to him.

Watch the Big Eyes trailer:

Prairie Miller
Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network's Arts Express.