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In 'Big Eyes,' husband steals wife's artistic thunder

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

Witness "Big Eyes," director Tim Burton's telling of the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the artist whose portraits of waifs with huge eyes became a sensation in the late '50s and early '60s.

Yes, Margaret Keane painted those pictures. But at the time, her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) took credit as the artist.

Margaret met Walter at a sidewalk art show in San Francisco, after she had taken her daughter and left her first husband. Walter presented himself as an artist who had studied in Paris and had his own streetscapes to sell ... except he hadn't studied in Paris and hadn't painted the paintings, but those were later revelations.

Walter swept Margaret off her feet and then realized the commercial potential her paintings held. He convinced her that the paintings would be more successful and would be taken more seriously if they were deemed the work of a male — chauvinism running at full strength during the period. And then he put her to work, churning out paintings secretly while Walter, with the ingenuity and enthusiasm of P.T. Barnum, set about turning them into a mass market product and himself into an art celebrity.

Eventually, Margaret stood up for herself and fled to Hawaii, where she filed suit against Walter. This led to a circus-like courtroom battle that is the film's highlight, with Walter — all clueless bluster — defending himself.

Burton captures the Bohemian North Beach scene nicely, and even brings in some of his trademark visual trickery as Margaret sees everyone around her with big eyes. But unlike most of his recent films, Burton doesn't go too broad. In fact, things feel almost downright contained (if mind boggling) until the courtroom scene, which is so entertaining you wish it lasted longer.

Adams is fine as the hesitant Margaret, but Waltz steals the show (as usual) with Walter's shenanigans. The sheer gall and delusion of the man are stunning. Eventually unveiled as a hollow huckster, he's the ghost of sexism past, emblematic of a time in which women were oppressed into invisibility. That's the dark undercurrent of "Big Eyes," but happily Margaret opened her own eyes and rose up.

'Big Eyes'


Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief strong language

Running time: 105 minutes

"Big Eyes" (PG-13) The somewhat amazing true story of '60s artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) took credit for her paintings until they had a courtroom showdown. (105 minutes) GRADE: B