The movie's title doesn't lie. They're huge, these eyes—dark, shiny, saucer-size orbs set in the faces of sad little children. In the late 1950s and early '60s, long before the Western world had ever heard the word anime, these doe-eyed waifs painted by Keane were all the rage.
Oh, the critics weren't enamored. The respectable art world called them commercialized kitsch. The eyes were freakish and sentimental and, well, just plain weird. "Like big, stale jellybeans," sniffed gallery owner Ruben.
But the public was entranced. "I believe you can see things in the eyes," artist Margaret Keane said. And her fans saw a great deal: pain and fear and longing and hope. They saw secrets there. Perhaps, in those haunted faces, they saw themselves.
Margaret Keane painted these waifs every day for years—the dark eyes, the creepily innocent expressions. She dutifully signed "Keane" at the bottom of each and turned them over to her husband. He'd hang them in his gallery for sale or give them to a passing celebrity while always, always claiming them as his own.
Throughout those mid-century decades, during the Keane big-eyed waif heyday, they were known as Walter Keane's paintings. Never mind that Walter never so much as slapped a spot of paint on them. Never mind that the only thing he saw in the eyes of those strange, painted children were dollar signs. He took the credit because he had to—or so he told his wife. Women weren't taken seriously in the male-centric art world. If she took credit for them, they'd never sell.
"What about honesty?" she asked.
"I'm Keane, you're Keane," he gushed. "From now on, we're one and the same."
So Margaret painted on in her darkened studio, a room not even her own daughter could enter. Only she and Walter knew the truth. Only they knew the real secret hiding behind those big, dark eyes.
True-to-life stories rarely give us clear-cut heroes or villains. Reality just doesn't often lend itself to such unalloyed role models. For much of the movie, Margaret is both a victim and an accomplice to Walter's deeply deceptive and damaging scheme—even after the two separate.
But we do see that she is deeply bothered by the lies they're propagating—and not just because she'd like to take credit for her phenomenally successful works. Lying is wrong, Margaret knows, and she's particularly bothered by the fact that she's lying to her daughter, Jane. She's eventually persuaded that, no matter the cost, she has to tell the truth.
What convinces her to come clean? A visit from a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses. They leave her a pamphlet that emphasizes the importance of always being honest. "Let the stealer steal no more," Margaret reads aloud to Jane. The sect has a profound influence on Margaret's life, and she tells some fellow believers that once Jehovah convinced her to tell the truth, she became as happy as she'd ever been. When Walter starts unleashing counterclaims in the press, Jane wonders aloud what Jehovah would think of them filing a defamation lawsuit.
Margaret also visits a Catholic priest to ask him about the lying she's doing. "I was raised Methodist, so if that's a problem, I can go," she prefaces. She doesn't tell the man about the specifics, just that her husband is asking her to fib, even to her daughter, about something important. The confused priest believes that perhaps Walter is just trying to protect Jane from an uncomfortable situation, and so he says, "Man is the head of the household. Perhaps you should trust in his judgment."
Before her encounter with Jehovah's Witnesses, Margaret was fascinated by numerology. We see her pick up a book on the subject in a grocery store and proceed to bore a potential customer about the numeral significance of her name. When Margaret moves to San Francisco, a friend tells her that if she's interested in salvation she should "try the Buddhist temple" (a way to illustrate the city's bohemian diversity in the late 1950s). When she and Walter get married in Hawaii, Margaret declares the place to be miraculous. "Only God could create these colors," she says. But she also admits to saying a prayer to the Hawaiian idol Kane, the islands' supposed god of creation.
Margaret and Walter were both divorced before they met. It's when her ex tries to get custody of Jane (alleging that a single mother can't provide for the girl) that Walter asks Margaret to marry him. We see them kiss and hug and cuddle. After they return from their honeymoon, an old friend tells Margaret that Walter is a notorious philanderer who has "diddled every skirt in the art circuit." Margaret is not put off. She knows Walter isn't perfect, she says, seeming to value his role as a provider over his faithfulness. We see her passively accept his wandering eye at parties and art openings.
Women wear blouses and dresses that reveal cleavage. Jane, as a teen, wears a skimpy bikini top.
People begin to wonder why nearly all of "Walter's" paintings seem to feature preadolescent waifs. When he asks his wife about what his "motivation" should be, Margaret jokes, "Maybe you have an unhealthy obsession with little girls."
Walter smashes a painting over somebody's head—a confrontation that lands them on the front page of the newspaper (and improves business for both). After that, the two engage in seemingly heated, but manufactured, disagreements.
Walter nearly stabs an art critic in the eye with a fork. Drunk, he starts flipping lighted matches toward Margaret and Jane. When the two barricade themselves in Margaret's studio, Walter stuffs the lighted matches through the keyhole … near a container of kerosene. Inebriated again, Walter threatens to have Margaret "whacked" if she ever reveals their secret.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and five or six s-words. We hear "son of a b--ch" once, "h---" a half-dozen times and "p---" once. Someone makes an obscene gesture. God's name is misused seven or eight times (once with "d--n"), and Jesus' is abused three or four times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Margaret smokes a great many cigarettes. She, Walter and nearly everyone else drink quite a bit, too (mostly wine, sometimes hard liquor). They frequent bars, and Margaret says of her home's wet bar, "You'd be surprised how much use we get out of it." Walter is particularly prone to downing its contents, often drinking to excess. And most of his aggressive moments come when he's under the influence. As for Margaret, when she becomes a Jehovah's Witness, she dumps a bottle of booze into the sink. There's talk of a "reefer."
Other Negative Elements
Sometimes it's a little hard to tell whether Walter's a habitual liar or slightly insane. At first he doesn't seem to want to take credit for Margaret's work. But when he begins to do so, he grows more and more insistent on Margaret playing along. [Spoiler Warning] And hers are not the only paintings he steals the glory for. He also lies to and deceives Margaret about other quite important things, leaving her to wonder whether he's fabricated most of his life's details.
About Margaret's first marriage we're told that she "walked out on her suffocating husband long before it became the fashionable thing to do." After her second divorce, Walter forces Margaret to give up any claims on the paintings and insists that she paint him 100 more to supply him with future income. It's the price of being rid of him, Walter says. Margaret reluctantly agrees.
Jane talks back and is disrespectful to her mom on occasion, pushing against Margaret's concerns.
Big Eyes—based on the real-life story of the Keanes and their art—suggests that Margaret was not just a victim of her husband, but of the era. Women, the movie tells us, were second-class citizens, incapable of supporting themselves and unlikely to harbor world-class talent. This was a man's world, Walter so often stressed. If you wanted to succeed—if you wanted to have your suburban palace with its pool—you had to abide by a man's rules. And a man like Walter had some very strange rules indeed.
Margaret's painted characters were silent and submissive, rarely smiling and never laughing. Often a tear shows itself trickling down an impassively smooth cheek. To the outside world, Keane's children seemed to know unspeakable secrets. But they were actually surprisingly open—offering quiet clues to an inner pain borne with stoic resolve, reflecting Margaret's own hurt, fear and loneliness.
A remarkable performance by Amy Adams captures Margaret's victimization and internal struggles with powerful subtlety. In Margaret, moviegoers see not a hero, but someone struggling with circumstances and villainous oppressors and her own complicit sins. The Bible tells us that the truth will set us free, and that was quite literally true for Margaret. That is the whole of the moral takeaway here: Margaret bore a strange and terrible secret for more than a decade. And when she decided to come clean during a radio interview in 1970, her life finally turned around.
The content takeaway includes daubs of blue language, smoking and drinking, some spiritual misdirection, and a scene or two of pretty meanspirited violence.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Amy Adams as Margaret Keane; Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane; Krysten Ritter as DeeAnn; Jason Schwartzman as Ruben; Danny Huston as Dick Nolan; Delaney Raye as Young Jane; Madeleine Arthur as Older Jane
Tim Burton ( Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street , Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish, Planet of the Apes, Sleepy Hollow)
The Weinstein Company
December 25, 2014