“I’m into Tim Burton, but only his newer stuff,” said no one ever.
So I’m thrilled to report that, so long as no drastic changes are made to the cut from last week’s preview screening in NYC, his upcoming live-action biopic is vintage Burton. The Weinsteins clearly have considerable faith that Big Eyes will strike a chord; they’re prepping it for a Christmas release. Was anyone game to throw Dark Shadows to the wolves smack in the middle of awards season? How about Alice in Wonderland? I don’t think so.
Big Eyes is a different story. It’s as focused and measured as those movies were not. In concept and even execution, it’s closer to Ed Wood than anything else in Tim Burton’s filmography. (And is, indeed, only the second biopic he’s ever done. If you don’t count Vincent, which I do. Because it’s the bomb.) The film tells the story of artist Margaret Keane whose husband Walter claimed, for decades, credit for her massively popular paintings of weepy children. The Ed Wood team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski wrote a distraction-free screenplay that zeroes in on the fairy tale-like story of Margaret’s enchantment, isolation, and eventual freedom. Oscar darlings Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz star, with Krysten Ritter, Terence Stamp, and Danny Huston in supporting roles.
This feels like a passion project in a lot a ways, as most art about artists does. Tim Burton has a personal connection with Margaret; he commissioned a painting from her of then wife Lisa Marie in the ’90s:
The story of the Keanes is so bananas that there’s nothing to do but keep it and the ’50s themselves center stage. Burton’s stylistic touches are there and all the more effective for their restraint. We first meet Margaret as she and her daughter are frantically packing up to escape, we assume, her first husband. She piles her things into a big boat of a pastel car and drives it down her calm, colorful, and symmetrical suburban street – very Edward Scissorhands. Vancouver streets are transformed into a swinging, San Francisco drag. Margaret pushes her shopping cart through cartoonishly perfect grocery store aisles. She locks herself away in her studio to paint in secret, like a princess in a tower. The costumes and styling are truly breathtaking. There’s care in the details, like the milky green Grasshopper Margaret drinks at the local jazz club. The evocative and obligatory Danny Elfman score is there. And Burton adds touch of the fantastical that I won’t give away; it works and does nothing to downplay the drama of Margaret’s real story.
Kate Hudson and Reese Witherspoon were among the actresses once attached to this movie. And no offense to either of them, but my god, were they kidding? Margaret Keane is passive for about 70% of this movie and no actress in her generation can play a quiet moment like Amy Adams. It’s frustrating for a modern audience to watch a woman hand over control – for love, for security, for both. (Our theater gasped indignantly when a priest told Margaret that the Bible commanded her to honor her husband, even after she confessed her diminishing faith in him. It made me feel good about life again.) Amy plays her with such dignity, particularly through – you guessed it – her eyes. Margaret may not be aggressive, but she’s no fool. The tension builds steadily. Walter gets more and more manic. When she finally starts to fight back, that’s already a triumph.
Should Amy get a nomination for this and The Weinstein Company is obviously counting on it, it will be her sixth in less than ten years. The part may not be showy enough to bring an Oscar home, but the Academy does love actors playing real people. And if Harvey can convince her subject – still alive and painting – to participate in the campaign, they would eat it up. So much depends on her competition (which will probably include Witherspoon in Jean-Marc Valee’s Wild), but I’d bank on Amy at least getting another nod this year.
Amy will be in the Best Actress category for certain. But we know that Harvey can pull some shenanigans when he feels like it (see: Julia Roberts as SUPPORTING for A:OC). So I wager he’ll scan the lead and supporting fields before submitting Christoph Waltz. To me, Walter Keane is absolutely a lead role – the foil for Margaret and the dragon she has to face. And who else would you cast as this charming, frenetic con-man? Even knowing the greasy path his character was headed down, Kim and I couldn’t help but be a little seduced by his first appearance. (“He’s so cute,” I whispered to her, as he bounded over to Margaret, dressed like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris.) Waltz has got the crazy eyes; it’s just a fact. But we can see how even that madness could enchant Margaret. Would it be crazy if we got married? Would it be crazy if we started this business and built a life together? There’s nothing quiet about his performance. Walter’s desire to fill every room and to fill every silence makes Margaret look incredibly sane in comparison. Ryan Reynolds was also attached to this part for a while and I’m morbidly curious as to how he would have pulled it off. Walter is despicable and ever so slightly lovable at the same time. Cast a guy who looks like Reynolds and he surely would have read more oily and menacing, yes? I think so.
And that’s it. No stop motion. No overblown Johnny Depp performance. Helena Bohnam Carter doesn’t even get murdered in this film. It’s a grown-up movie with an imagination. A fable that’s also real. A Cinderella story where she fairy godmothers herself. Harrowing but never hopeless. And most of all it’s a story about claiming what’s yours. Not for money or fame, but just to be able to sleep at night. All we have in this world is what we create and it’s up to us both to share it widely and keep it close. This is the kind of movie that Tim Burton should be making and one that’s bound to awaken a long dormant (or at least apologetic) fandom. I can’t wait to see it again on Christmas Day.