Big Eyes is the story of a husband and a wife, and a defining moment in history where art and commercialism intersected for the first time. Before there was Warhol, there was Margaret and Walter Keane. Walter, a con artist, took credit for the true artist, Margaret’s work for years. As a maniacal salesman, he twisted the truth to serve his means, and invented the system of mass art reproduction. The frenzy surrounding the Big Eyes paintings marks the birth of the “pop art” movement, and eventually redefined what it means to be “kitsch.” The historic relevancy alone is enough to pique my interest, but I have a more personal connection to the paintings as well.
When I was a kid, the first piece of real artwork we ever had in our home was a “Big Eyes” print by Walter Keane – or so we thought. My Dad Max bought a Keane print at the corner store on 48th Street around the corner from his office in the diamond district. It was a seminal day for me and a seminal day for our family.
No one in our neighborhood had artwork hanging on their walls – family pictures, yes, but not art. We lived in a place called the Electchester in Queens, which was the next best thing to city housing. We loved our home just the same and with great pride my Dad framed this Walter Keane painting (as it was credited then) in our living room. That’s where it hung until years later when Margaret Keane won her court case, proving Walter was a fraud and that she was the painter behind all those big eyes pictures. My Dad had passed away when Margaret won the case against Walter. The painting that had once been a sense of pride now felt like a mockery. My Mom, in his honor, took the picture down, tore it up, threw it out. She felt she did it on his behalf. So when Tim Burton asked me why the hell I would finance Big Eyes, the answer is twofold. Number one: Tim Burton. Number two: my Dad.
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I watched Tim direct this movie and create a color palate with his cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel. I had no doubt when signing on for this film that Tim, and only Tim, could tell the Keanes’ story, but he exceeded even my expectations. To see how he dealt with the art world in such a satirical, questioning, ironic and openly liberating way was intoxicating. Even though I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great directors, watching Tim work on this film — a film about art — was incredible considering he’s a world-renowned artist himself.
And then we had the talents of Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz playing Margaret and Walter. It is shocking to me that Amy has not won an Academy Award yet and her skill, which is apparent in every role she has ever played, shines here. Amy became Margaret, and wholly inhabited the character with a quiet nuance brimmed with brilliance. Often it is the flamboyant roles that capture attention, but I have enough faith in the actors out there, that they understand the incredible skill it takes to capture a quiet performance. I’m betting on Amy.
When Christoph Waltz began his performance as Walter Keane, he had to be seductive at first to woo Amy Adams’ Margaret, but then become the over-the-top, maniacal, controlling husband halfway through. During his courtroom sequences, I remember Tim saying, “You have to take it down,” to which our writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski said, “But Walter Keane didn’t take it down.” According to reporters at the 1986 trial, the presiding judge, Judge Samuel King threatened to “take a recess and shackle [him] to a chair”, duct tape his mouth, and even went as far as “I’m going to beat you over the head with a mallet”, he was so outrageous. The judge even accused Walter of having a head full of cement. The things he did, based on the court transcripts, are beyond anything we could’ve put in the movie. Audiences would never believe it. You’re going see Christoph’s performance that you might think seems overstated, but in reality it’s understated. Walter was a con and a clown.
The thought then occurred to me: What if Walter isn’t the only one using this con game. Imagine that, say, Banksy, actually has a Mrs. Banksy locked in a room somewhere who was only allowed out at night, or if the elusive art was actually done by The Family Banksy, or if none of the work “he” claims to create is actually his own.
A number of years ago my friend and I bought a couple of Banksy pieces. Since I started making this movie, though, I’ve taken them down and locked in a safe. The reason is simple: I’ve never seen a picture of Banksy and I’ve never seen Banksy paint. Maybe there are seventeen Banksys. Maybe there’s no Banksy. Maybe Banksy is just a figment of my imagination (boy is this article going to cost me if that’s all true because the value of my own Banksy works are going to plummet).
So in light of this movie, I would like to offer the real Banksy to come out, come out wherever he or she is, and show the world what a fantastic painter he or she is out in the open. She / he / they can use the walls of my offices in Tribeca as the canvas. They’re perfectly suitable for spray paint. The actor who plays Judge King, James Saito, in Big Eyes is so great and learned so much on set that he can be the judge who Banksy paints for. And if there’s a Mrs. Banksy who has been the talent behind these paintings, I think it’s time to reveal her and give the credit deserved.
Big Eyes is a fun and human look at the art world and history. And it’s an opportunity for my dad, who’s in that big arm chair in the sky, to have the last laugh at the guy who took his hard-earned money under false pretenses. For me, it’ll give the world an opportunity for Banksy to read this article, fly to New York, and knock on our office door. We’ll have a canvas ready for him.
Harvey Weinstein in an occasional Deadline contributor.
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