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Film / Big Eyes

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"Why, I created these children."
Walter Keane

Big Eyes is a 2014 film directed by Tim Burton about Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a housewife whose paintings of waifs with large eyes became famous in The '50s, as her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz) took the credit for them. In The '60s, she takes him to court in order to prove once and for all who the true artist is.

This film provides examples of:

  • Army of Lawyers: Walter brings lawyers from the Gannett Company to the trial to defend him. This turns out to be a subversion: the lawyers were only there to point out that Gannett was immune from defamation prosecution since they were reporting on a person's claims in relation to a significant public event, and hence were protected by the First Amendment. They leave as soon as the judge dismisses the case against them, leaving Walter to defend himself for actually making the defamatory allegation.
  • Associated Composer: Why Danny Elfman, of course!
  • The Barnum: Walter is introduced by his uncanny ability to sell even the tritest art as highbrow and chic, and builds his entire empire on being able to sell himself as a creative genius despite never having done a single painting in his life.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Walter, ultimately. He insists he's an artist and continues to do so until his death, even after Margaret uncovers signatures on his paintings that prove they were really just mass-produced tourist souvenirs from France.
  • Big Anime Eyes: The film is about the life of Margaret Keane, a famous American artist that painted women as well children and animals with big and expressive eyes before anime was widely known in the Western world.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Walter initially comes off charming and romantic, but is actually manipulative and abusive.
  • Caustic Critic: John Canady, is one of the only people to really make Walter lose his composure and display his inner-rage. While it's nice seeing him bring Walter down a peg or two, he can rub the audience the wrong way for being so hard on Margaret's art, although the main thing he seems to resent is Walter's excessive and shameless over-promotion.
  • Children Are Innocent: Janie sees right through Margaret and (especially) Walter's scam almost immediately. The first time Margaret feels any remorse about allowing Walter to take credit for her paintings is when she has to lie to her daughter about it.
  • Courtroom Antics: The final and probably best scene of the movie is full of this, as Walter loses his lawyer team just before Margaret's lawsuit is reviewed and chooses to represent himself instead of asking for the trial to be postponed and get someone else. Eventually, he and Margaret end up shouting at one another, leading to an exasperated judge declaring that they'll have a paint-off to resolve the issue once and for all. Walter proceeds to fake an arm injury to try to get out of it.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Critic John Canady when he's dealing with Walter, especially after Walter drags out the overdone insult of a critic being someone unable to create.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Dick Nolan, the narrator and a newspaper reporter friend of the family, is ultimately uninvolved in exposing the truth, and never has any final scene talking about things with Margaret. He lampshades this when noting his frustration about how Margaret didn't choose to approach him for the story.
  • Disappeared Dad: While he is mentioned, Jane's father - and Margaret's first husband - never appears, save a wedding photo but he is around in other ways, like a letter he wrote, asking for custody of Jane in their divorce settlement.
  • Doing It for the Art: In-Universe. Margaret has no reason to paint her "big eyes" other than out of personal expression, as proven by her difficulty to actually sell them. Any real-life artist will be able to tell that Walter is not an artist by the way he "waits for inspiration to strike," unlike Margaret who draws and paints from the soul without needing any sort of mental preparation.
  • Domestic Abuse: Walter, of the mental and emotional kind mostly. But after being humiliated by a critic, he gets drunk at home and starts tossing lit matches at Margaret and her daughter, nearly lighting a can of turpentine in the painting room the girls had locked themselves in.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: The first thing Walter does any time he's turned down by a potential buyer or has to take any criticism is getting drunk. He eventually turns into a violent alcoholic when fame gets to him and he has to force Margret harder and harder to keep up the lie.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: For all the crap Margaret goes through with Walter, she ultimately gets the praise from public and becomes a successful artist.
  • A Fool for a Client: After the Gannett lawyers leave him, megalomaniac Walter decides to represent himself, guided only by his vague memories of Perry Mason episodes. This works out as well for him as you'd expect.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Margaret and Walter are painting side by side in a park, Jane notes that Walter's canvas is blank, and in fact, he does not paint anything for the entire scene. He isn't actually a painter.
    • When Walter and Banducci are fake arguing to attract attention Walter shouts "AND I'LL SUE YOU FOR SLANDER!" Guess who ironically gets sued for slander? Walter, by Margaret.
    • Walter is seen watching Perry Mason on TV just before the art critic comes on to rip apart "his" art. When he takes Margret to court, Dick Nolan muses to himself that this is Walter's only insight into courtroom procedures and that he doesn't stand a chance.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Walter initially promotes his and Margaret's work together, being honest about Margaret's share of the work. After seeing people are more interested in Margaret's work than his, he becomes increasingly hostile and jealous and begins lying that he did Margaret's paintings. He also later yells at Margaret when he sees her talking to someone admiring her work and gets upset when she wants to make a new series of paintings under her name.
  • Hollywood Jehovah's Witness: Discussed. Walter tries to paint them as kooky and suspicious. What's actually seen is a group of kind people who gave Margaret the support and confidence to stand up to Walter and eventually establish her own independent identity.
  • Hollywood Law: In-universe example. Walter represents himself in the court case and his only prior experience is from watching Perry Mason. The judge calls him out on his posturing.
  • I Resemble That Remark!: When Margaret testifies that Walter was abusive but good at charming customers:
    Walter: (smugly) Hmmm... it sounds like you're describing two different men. One a sadistic ogre, and the other one a delightful bon vivant.
    Margaret: Yeah, that's you, Walter. You're Jekyll and Hyde.
    Walter: (suddenly furious) THAT'S AN OUTRAGEOUS STATEMENT! I demand we STRIKE IT FROM THE RECORD!
  • Ironic Echo: Walter screaming "I'll sue you for slander!" Margaret does that to him later in the film.
  • Keeping Secrets Sucks: Margaret is uncomfortable from the start about Walter claiming authorship for her paintings, but reluctantly agrees when he argues that it's the best way to profit from her work. As he becomes increasingly attached to the fame that follows though, conditions for her get worse as he forces her to paint for hours in a cramped room, lie to her daughter, and isolate herself from her friends and neighbors. It gets to the point where she has a brief mental breakdown, hallucinating people in a grocery store as having big eyes, like the subject of her paintings.
  • Kick the Dog: Walter tells Margaret that he "puts up with" her daughter.
  • Knew It All Along: Margaret's best friend Dee-Ann, after reading the truth about the paintings in the paper.
  • Letterbox Arson: At one point, Margaret locks herself into her painting room. Walter starts tossing lit matches in through the keyhole. In his defense, he may not have known there was a bottle of highly flammable turpentine right there...
  • Malicious Slander: Before the court date, Walter lies to the press about how Margaret needs psychiatric help and insists she's a bad mother for joining the Jehovah's Witnesses, implying that she's giving her daughter a poor upbringing because of it.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Walter convinces Margaret that her paintings will only be taken seriously if people thought that a man had made them.
  • Nerves of Steel: Canady doesn't flinch after Walter comes inches away from stabbing him in the eye after a bad review.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Christoph Waltz's own Austrian tones sometimes come through, particularly when he's shouting, such as in the scene when Margaret confronts Walter about "S. Cenic"'s name being on the paintings that he claimed he did.
  • Parental Neglect: Walter to his daughter from his first marriage, until he sees her potentially being an artist as a way to get more limelight. Margaret and Dick didn't even know she existed until he brought her over once years into Walter and Margaret's marriage.
  • Playing Sick: Variation. Walter pretends to have pulled his shoulder while picking up a paintbrush in order to get out of painting in court.
  • Punny Name: S. Cenic, the scenic artist whose paintings Walter plagiarized.
  • Real-Person Cameo: The real Margaret Keane is seen sitting on a park bench reading a book when Margaret and Walter are painting in the park.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Director Tim Burton has said that some of the outlandish elements of the real story (like Walter cross-examining himself) had to be played down or cut so that the film would be believable.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Judge, who gives Margaret plenty of chances to prove her story, keeps Walter in line and does dismiss the case against the paper quickly while noting there was some lying on both parts, given Margaret's long-term acquiescence to her husband's lies.
  • Reclusive Artist: In-Universe. Margaret is forced into this state by Walter, Walter taking credit for creating them while Margaret's spending all of her time making them in her studio.
  • Shout-Out: At one point, Walter speaks to a socialite named Mrs. Teasdale.
  • Shown Their Work: The painting Margaret does in the courtroom to prove that she's the artist? That's a recreation of the actual painting she did.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Tim Burton's first biopic Ed Wood, written by the same screenwriters 20 years prior. Both even featured a lead character who's an alcoholic and had overlying themes of Doing It for the Art.
  • Spotting the Thread: When Margaret finds a shipping box of paintings by S. Cenic in the closet, which helps her realize that Walter had been lying about painting in Paris.
  • Struggling Single Mother: Margaret is extremely concerned about providing for her daughter by herself, especially since the story takes place during the 1950s/60s. Her first ex-husband uses the fact that she is a single mother to try and take custody of Jane, and Margaret has to marry Walter to avoid this. During the trial, Margaret admits that a big part of the reason Margaret stayed with Walter as long as she did is that she didn't think she could provide for herself and Jane on her own.
  • Tagline:
    • "She created it. He sold it. And everyone bought it."
    • "The hilarious true story of the biggest art con in history."
    • "It takes a real artist to take down a con artist."
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Walter spent the rest of his life trying to reclaim credit for Margaret's work and died bitter, penniless, and never produced another painting. Margret, meanwhile, happily remarried, returned to San Francisco and continues to paint every day.