“I’ve always wanted to do a very serious courtroom drama,” joked Tim Burton on Thursday night at the world premiere of Big Eyes, the incredible true story of Margaret and Walter Keane, whose kitschy paintings of saucer-eyed children became mass-marketed sensations in the 1960s. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz play the married artists whose pop success concealed a secret that later exploded in a famously zany 1986 court case: For a decade, the self-promoting Walter claimed he created the Waifs (while making millions from them), when it was Margaret who’d held the brush.
Adams gives a nuanced performance as Margaret, a timid single mother in the male-dominated 1950s who allows her showy second husband to co-opt her painfully personal art, becoming increasingly trapped in the lie as their fortunes swell. The Weinstein Co. has set a Christmas qualifying run and is already aggressively screening Big Eyes for awards voters, pushing it in several categories including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and screenplay.
Harvey Weinstein watched from the back aisles as the audience of 600 in LACMA’s sold-out Bing Theater ate up the seriocomic and seriously weird true tale. “I love this film,” he told me afterward. The first screening of the recently finished film was a first-ever world premiere score for Film Independent at LACMA; also in attendance were costume designer Colleen Atwood and production designer Rick Heinrichs, along with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whom Burton first worked with 20 years ago on a biopic of another misfit-artist: Ed Wood.
Burton saw Keanes everywhere growing up in suburban California and had long been fascinated by Margaret, whom he first met in the mid-‘90s when he sought her out and commissioned a painting. Initially aboard to produce, Burton instead made Big Eyes his next pic as director after 2012’s Oscar-nominated Frankenweenie. “Between the art and the dysfunctional relationship, it seemed perfect,” he said.
Adams, who earned her fifth Oscar nod for playing a ballsy con woman in American Hustle last year, revealed she wasn’t keen on playing Keane when she had read the script years earlier. “I was focused on playing confident women (at the time), but when I had my daughter and had been a mom for a while I read it again and saw it from a different point of view,” she said. “I really began to understand that the quietness of Margaret was a strength. When it came around the second time I wrote to Tim and said, ‘Can I do it?’”
To get into Margaret’s skin Adams spent time with the octogenarian painter at her Northern California studio, taking in her quietness. “It took an hour to get eye contact,” said Adams. “It took a while for me to get the courage to ask, ‘Why did you stay?’ For her, it was about telling the truth. It was important to me that I be honest to who she was.”
For years Margaret silently supported her husband as he took credit for her paintings, met celebrities and dignitaries and even released collections of her work under his name. “She felt like she was complicit, and I think that’s why she stayed,” said Adams. “Ultimately she saw his manipulation but she always held herself accountable for the lies that she told.”
To play the charismatic Walter, who died in 2000, Waltz read the man’s 1983 autobiography. “I must admit, after page 27 it’s hard to read,” said Waltz, whose portrayal morphs from charming huckster to master manipulator as Walter clings to the charade to the end. “It’s delusional rambling. Overall, it gave me an impression that the actual man must be beyond portrayal.”
But Keane’s hunger to be acknowledged as an artist was one touchstone Waltz did relate to: “I can identify with the despair, of wanting to be an artist and understanding that you might not be one.”
The real life court case that eventually pitted the Keanes against each other in a “he said, she said” battle over artistic ownership was filled with wacky headline-grabbing antics: Walter acted as his own lawyer, interrogated Margaret, and put himself on the stand before the judge called a one-hour painting bake-off between the Keanes. Margaret was awarded $4 million after completing an authentic Big Eyes painting while Walter begged off with a shoulder injury.
“Nobody believes this, but we toned down the courtroom scene!” Burton said. “That’s what’s so great about the story. Those things really happened.”
Alexander and Karaszewski, who also wrote biopics The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man On The Moon, based the scene on actual court transcripts. “It must have been the wildest thing ever, but what we did was tame compared to what went on in that courtroom,” said Waltz.
Post screening, Weinstein concurred. “Christoph wasn’t kidding about that scene – he even underplayed it,” he told me with a chuckle.
Alexander and Karaszewski found that the Keanes’ decade-long deception was so convincing, even a friend of the couple didn’t know the truth behind the Big Eyes. “At the time, nobody cared, nobody was paying attention, and nobody could type it into a search engine,” Alexander mused. “That would never happen now.”
Even San Francisco columnist Dick Nolan, played by Danny Huston in the film, played his own role in building the Walter Keane charade. “He was old school, a Sweet Smell of Success type. He would plant Walter in his stories,” Alexander explained.
That never happens anymore, right? I countered.