Movie Review: Authenticity, Social Norms, and Art in Big Eyes

I just finished the film Big Eyes and it left me with a lot of questions to consider: what is the purpose of creating art? If you are not a big self- promotional person, does that make you any less of an artist if you enjoy staying out of the spotlight? What are the emotional costs to success in the creative world, and how can you establish boundaries when people try to push you to give up that authentic little spark that goes into your art?

Big Eyes is based on the true story of Margaret Keane, an American painter based in San Francisco whose husband, Walter, sold her paintings and gave himself credit even though he promised her that the two of them were going to work as a team. In the film, we see Margaret Ulbrich furiously rushing to shove her paintings and her daughter, Jane, in her car because she needs to leave an incredibly abusive husband. They leave Northern California for San Franscisco, where she meets up with her friend Dee-Ann. Back in the 1950s, social norms frowned upon women who left their husbands without jobs lined up, so Margaret lands a job painting on furniture at a furniture company while also selling her work at local art fairs. Margaret’s art features children with big sad eyes staring at the viewer, and as the real Margaret Keane reveals in the bonus DVD feature “The Making of Big Eyes” she painted sad children because she herself was sad. She had just left an abusive marriage and didn’t have many friends other than her daughter and Dee-Ann.

At one of the art fairs, she struggles to sell her paintings, and when she negotiates $2 to paint a little boy, the boy’s dad says he’ll give her $1 instead for painting him (at the time, American society traditionally viewed women as caretakers, and often didn’t take female artists seriously). But then she notices this painter named Walter Keane selling paintings like hotcakes. He comes over to her and tells her she’s not being promotional enough, and tries to convince Jane to let Margaret paint her (Jane soon tells him she’s Margaret’s daughter). When Margaret reveals she is separated from her husband, the two immediately start a relationship and within a short time they are married. Dee-Ann tells Margaret she thinks something is fishy with them marrying in a short time, but Margaret says she thinks Walter is sweet and will take care of her.

Walter then brings his scenic paintings to Ruben, an art dealer, and he immediately rejects them because, according to Ruben, no one wants landscape paintings anymore. They want abstract paintings and not literal street scenes. When he shows him Margaret’s paintings, he gives her credit but Ruben still rejects them. So then Walter takes them to a jazz club and the owner at first rejects them, but then because Walter is a pushy outgoing person, he convinces Banducci, the owner, to buy them, and one night while waiting outside the restrooms for people to ask about the paintings, a couple comes up and asks him who painted the children with large eyes, and so Walter takes credit (and pay) for it because he is desperate and knows Margaret isn’t a self-promotional person and wouldn’t feel comfortable telling people she did it. Honestly, all Margaret wants to do is paint and spend time with her daughter, but Walter has a completely different idea about success, one that involves about 99.9% promotion and about maybe .01% actually doing the work. Unlike Margaret, Walter waits for inspiration instead of actually doing his own work (we later see this clearly in a much later scene). Margaret actually has a reason for painting the children and she puts her energy into her work rather than just talking about and pitching ideas like Walter does.

I cannot fully relate to Margaret, but I totally understand why she didn’t speak up at the beginning. She had just left an abusive marriage and just wanted someone who wouldn’t beat her. However, as we find throughout the film, Walter is a fraud and was just as toxic as Margaret’s ex-husband was, and even more so because he promised her all these nice things (money, a nice home, fame) and they did get those things like he promised. He also promised her she would be living the dream of just making art and not having a day job. However, Margaret knows her limits even though she doesn’t listen to them, and to make essentially Walter more famous (and to keep her marriage with him) she sits in the room all day painting for hours children with sad eyes. Because she is producing so many paintings, she doesn’t take breaks and thus doesn’t have room to just think about how to most authentically express her own self through these paintings. In one key scene she tells him that art is personal. The children with sad big eyes come from her own feelings of sadness, and to give this not sad (in fact, overly zealous) man credit for her work means giving up a key part of herself to impersonal world of mass production, fancy parties, and small talk. Margaret only wanted a happy marriage, and she did eventually end up in a happy marriage after leaving Walter, but in a way, she went through this experience so that she could help inspire other artists who felt threatened in any way into lying about their work or letting someone else take credit for it, particularly women.

Nowadays, we take it for granted that we can promote ourselves through social media and sell our work online. However, there were no computers at the time, and so Margaret couldn’t just put up a Skillshare video showing people how to paint children with big eyes on the Internet. Also, this made me wonder how I, as an introverted musician, should promote myself even though I don’t really enjoy self-promotion. Does not playing in gigs all the time not make me a musician? What if I just love music for its own sake? What if I just want to play for others because I love it? In one scene Margaret is walking in a grocery store and finds a grand display of her work in commercialized style. There are postcards, posters, all sorts of inexpensive paraphernalia with her art on it. And the display is labeled in big bold letters “Walter Keane”, showing how the situation has gotten out of hand and that although Walter promised her work would get famous, it became mass produced and lost a lot of its quality. And let’s face it; not everyone liked Margaret’s paintings, and everyone was pretty divided on whether one could consider her work to be “real art” (whatever the hell that means). But after seeing this display, Margaret actually sees customers in the store as having big eyes like the children in her paintings. I saw the trailer and thought, after seeing the woman in the grocery store with big eyes, thought, “Ehhh…I don’t know if this is going to give me nightmares.” But after seeing this film, I really did feel for Margaret because in this moment, we see how this entire scheme messed her life up. It not only ruined her friendship with Dee-Ann and her relationship with her daughter (she forbids her daughter Jane from going into her studio and lies, telling her that it’s Walter’s studio and those are his paintings). It also ruined her self-esteem. I know she had this silent strength for ten years, but Walter was incredibly toxic and Margaret thought how many women at the time did: that their husbands were going to take care of them and they should just stay quiet and stay at home. This scene, along with the incredible score by Danny Elfman, conveys all of the complicated feelings Margaret has about her relationship with Walter, and more-over, her relationship with her art.

There was a wonderful composer named Melanie Bonis. She was one of the crucial composers to bridge the gap between Romantic and Impressionistic music, and from a young age she taught herself to play piano. However, because of gender norms at the time, her parents frowned on her passion and wanted her to just live with a husband. Even though she produced several works throughout her life, Melanie Bonis, like Margaret, really didn’t want to become famous, but really just wanted to produce art. At the time, you had to be extremely self-promotional to get anywhere as an artist, but Mel B wasn’t super self-promotional (she named herself Mel because women weren’t taken seriously as composers, so she had to shorten her name so she could gain access to the male-dominated world of composers. The only other Mel B I know of is Mel B from The Spice Girls). Because she wasn’t all about promoting herself, no one really knows about her, not even me. I wanted to play more female composers because I was done just playing pieces written by men (not that there’s anything wrong with Bach or Debussy; it’s just that times are changing and people are becoming more aware that the classical world has often put up barriers against composers who are often underrepresented in the field). So that’s how I came across Mel B; I just googled “female composers” and IMSLP had a long list of them (thank goodness for IMSLP). Just because Mel didn’t promote herself a lot doesn’t mean her works stunk. I love playing her Cello Sonata because it just has this richness to it, and a lot of people just haven’t heard of Mel B, so I wanted to dig her out from the trenches and play her music since I haven’t played it before. Same goes for other less well-known women composers such as Florence Price and Dora Pejacevic; their music is beautiful and I honestly wish I had encountered them sooner.

Now, of course, it wouldn’t be fair for me to reduce Big Eyes to a movie about a woman letting a man walk all over her. In “The Making of Big Eyes” feature the screen writers said that they kept asking “Why did Margaret let Walter take credit for her work for so long?” and from that there were so many other questions that the movie addresses: what is love? what is art? what is criticism? Interestingly, Walter is very bad at taking criticism because he hasn’t produced his own art to show to the public. When you just rely on charisma, you don’t really prove anything. Margaret, however, tells him straight up after finding he painted over the name of the actual artist for those street scene paintings he sold, that “the more he lies, the smaller he seems”. Of course, I was snapping my fingers every time she spoke out against his nonsense because she let him do it for ten years and it really hurt her. But unlike Walter, Margaret handles criticism by continuing to paint. I think what has helped me as a musician is not saying, “Ah, I can’t play Tchaikovsky, I give up”. I work on what needs to be improved and keep playing different kinds of music. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how this movie really drilled it into my head this very key lesson: you must always do your own work. Never try to copy someone else. Yes you can seek inspiration, but in the end you need to produce your own ideas so you don’t end up plagiarizing someone else’s. And yes, you need to know your worth and yes, it’s okay to want to sell your art and get paid for your work. However, if people poo-pooh your work, it’s very important to not let other people’s criticism make you feel like any less of an artist. And having a day job doesn’t make you any less of an artist, either. Elizabeth Gilbert said that artists should work at their day jobs so that they don’t have to just support themselves with their art. Because as the film shows, if you support yourself with your art, you need to also take care of yourself and not become so immersed in the business aspect that you forget the sheer reason why you wanted to make art in the first place.

Big Eyes. 2014. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.

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