When I was a kid I hardly ever thought about artistic partnerships - that dynamic was too old fashioned to be relevant, since it was tethered to my parents generation where the music scene was ruled by Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards. However, once I started trying to seriously pursue my own artistic endeavors I became sort of obsessed with them. There's certain things I do well - I work hard, I have a certain knack for phrasing. There are also things I don't do well - I'm iffy on presentation and actively bad at self promotion. As soon as I sensed that my talent was going to hit a hard ceiling unless I found someone who could compliment my limitations I started to focus on famous partnerships in an effort to understand how they worked. I needed to know: were these pairs just successful because of luck, because the right person just happened to meet their perfect partner at the right time? Or was their success always inevitable because their talent was always that great? What mixture of fate, luck and hard work goes into making those pairings work?
Tim Burton's new movie Big Eyes is trying to shed some light on these questions. Big Eyes is based on the real story of Margaret and Walter Keane, a married couple that achieved cultural ubiquity together in the 1960s. Margaret had always been a painter, and her specialty was portraits of sad children with big eyes, but she never had the self respect to sell her own work for what it was worth. That changed when she met her husband Walter, who was a born salesman with no artistic talent at all. At first their partnership paid massive dividends: Walter's natural hustle turned Margaret's paintings into a cottage industry that sold thousands of paintings and coffee table books before inspiring legions of imitators. Unfortunately, the good times didn't last long, because Walter insisted that he take all the credit for creating the paintings, and that weighed heavily on Margaret, who was using the paintings to express herself, not stroke her husband's ego.
The good news and bad news about Big Eyes is that the Keanes' story takes some massively weird turns as it progresses. That's good news because it keeps the story engaging: as Walter becomes more and more untethered from reality he's able to swing back and forth between being the story's villain and it's comic relief on a dime, and that keeps the story lively. Unfortunately (for me at least) those twists keep the movie from being able to focus on the complicated nature of their partnership. There's a really interesting push and pull between these two characters, but the film leaves a lot of the story's power on the table so that it can show Walter acting like a wacky con man.
Big Eyes is exclusively on Margaret's side, and that isn't necessarily wrong - after all, Walter was a liar and an abusive husband. And I should be clear that the film isn't completely unfair to him - there are some scenes where he gets some credit, like a scene at an art opening where he's successfully schmoozing with several scenesters while she's actively scaring away every potential buyer that happens to walk near her. But as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the mixture of skills that someone needs to succeed, I do think that this movie shortchanges Walter a little bit. Maybe Margaret doesn't think that all of the attention Walter brought to her paintings was worth all the stress that came from being married to him, but that trade off is more complicated than this movie wants to admit.
There has always been a divide between art and commerce that some people can straddle and others can't. I think that divide has been particularly tricky to navigate in the last few decades since our ability to mass produce art has really blurred the line between what is an honest to God creation and what is merely a product. To that end, Walter is at least half of the team, because he's managing one half of their business, and perhaps more, depending on how much you factor her artworks ubiquity into her artistic legacy. I'm not just talking about his ability to generate buzz around the work - I'm talking about his focus and dedication to managing the businesses that manufacture and sell the prints the prints that pushed Margaret's work into the zeitgeist.
I'm not excusing his selfishness in taking credit for work that wasn't his, and I'm not denying that he was an abusive husband. I'm sure those years where she didn't know if she was ever going to get out from Walter's thumb and get the credit she deserved were terrible to live though. But I am saying that little shy Margaret isn't going to be the subject of a Hollywood bio-pic if Walter doesn't take her out of the crib factory where she's painting the logos on baby beds and push her to become an artist in her own right. Success often demands compromise, and while the compromises she had to make might have been a bit extreme but they weren't unheard of. I wanted this movie to really ask what success is worth, but it isn't interested in that question - it seemed to presuppose that it isn't worth going through this.
Still, even if the film didn't play into my particular obsessions it's at least fun and interesting. Most of the characters are almost caricatures- Margaret is shy as a church mouse and Walter is the type to shout from a mountaintop - but they are drawn in such a way that the contrast between their extremes leads to an interesting dynamic, and their quirks are utilized in a way that often results in solid laughs. I also think the setting is compelling: Margaret was painting at a time when the definition of "art" was being challenged by the pop artists who were trying to push fine culture out of fancy galleries and into people's homes, and that adds another layer of complexity to the proceedings. (People that are obsessed with that debate will probably be as frustrated with this movie as I was, as that's another topic that it glances over when it could have explored it in depth.) If this movie hadn't fallen apart right before it crossed the philosophical finish line I would have loved it... But I can't want to deny that I liked Big Eyes despite itself. After all, a movie that is appealing but empty is a fitting tribute to Margaret's paintings, which came from real emotion, but still only felt like kitsch.