Margaret Keane, the painter famously known for the big, oversized doe-like eyes of her subjects, is the subject of the new film, Big Eyes. Tim Burton, a Keane collector, directs Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, with the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewksi (who collaborated with Burton on Ed Wood) tells this real-life story of truth buried under years of lies and deception.
After relocating to San Francisco, Margaret attempts to make a living as an artist. But, in the 1950’s San Francisco, she finds that it is difficult for a divorced, single-mother like herself to get a job, much less make it as an artist. Then, in a moment of serendipity, she meets Walter Keane as portrayed by Christoph Waltz.
Walter is charismatic. He sweeps Margaret off her feet, showing that the grass is greener in San Francisco. Filled with hope from her relationship with him, Margaret agrees to marry Walter. The newlyweds fly off to Hawaii for their honeymoon. Life for Margaret could not be any better.
While charismatic, Walter is not always forthcoming. He is the kind of character that, upon first meeting him, you want to like him, but there is something about him that gives off a bad vibe (making it a perfect role for Waltz). We soon learn that Walter is really a real estate businessman and he “paints” on the side. From then on, the lies swell.
Margaret and Walter live in the reality of time where the husband brings home the bacon and the wife cooks it. It was a time when the expectations of the wife were to be supportive and loyal to her husband. However, this has already proven to cause Margaret to live in suffering, resulting in her leaving her husband and moving to San Francisco. Here, in this new city and this new relationship, Margaret finds herself in a similar situation.
After hanging his and Margaret’s painting in a jazz club, Margaret’s paintings become wildly popular. While telling Margaret that everyone loved them, he failed to mention that everyone thought he painted them. Margaret is left in this place of unwanted tension between living in the truth and remaining faithful and loyal to her husband. She longs for the rightly owed credit for the works she has painted and for people to know that they are expressions of her. Yet at the same time, she wants her husband to be happy.
She chooses to not rock that boat.
In her book, “Suffering,” German theologian and scholar Dorothee Soelle paints the reader a picture of a woman who is abused nightly by her husband. “The woman endures this hell,” Soelle writes, “She walks beside a river and wishes she were lying in it.” This, for Soelle, is a picture of suffering.
While Walter does not abuse Margaret physically, the affliction, as philosopher Simone Weil would call it, was his dishonesty. This was emotional/psychological and social abuse. Margaret’s affliction embodies these dimensions. She is manipulated into creating works that Walter will get widely popular for. All while Walter secludes Margaret to the shadows (and the attic), keeping his operation going, and his wife socially excluded.
Margaret is living in a paint-fumed hell.
Margaret seems to be powerless in this situation. She seems to have no voice. Husband knows best, after all. For Soelle and other thinkers, this powerlessness is a key element to one’s suffering. Even though Margaret is doing something she loves – painting – she is without meaning or purpose. Walter has ripped any chance of purpose away from her.
When Margaret is forced to lie to her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye), however, the guilt is too much for her. At one point, Margaret’s meaning and purpose in life was protecting and providing for Jane. However, now that Walter has alienated Margaret from herself and from Jane, Margaret realizes that she has no longer been a mother to Jane.
Riddled with guilt, she goes to a Catholic Church to confess – even though she was raised Methodist. There is no explanation why she goes to the church. We can surmise that having been raised Methodist, she is familiar with the church and considers it a place of sanctuary. Margaret has realized that she has been living in suffering and it has affected her relationship with her daughter. She seeks the church and its resident theologians to discern her next steps.
The priest on the other side of the confessional tells her that in her situation, she should follow her husband’s example. The priest reinforces the stereotypical role of the “housewife.” What is best for Margaret is what is best for Walter.
Dorothee Soelle’s work on suffering was supported by her understanding of the roles in which women like Margaret were encouraged to live out. These roles, in Soelle’s view, were unnecessary labels placed on men and women alike. When society (and yes, even the Church) encourages the living into these labels, it prevents individuals from hearing their own vocational call in life.
Margaret comes to the church seeking liberation and freedom. The priest in the confessional, instead of being an agent of liberation and freedom, is an agent of suffering and oppression. This is not what Margaret needs to hear, especially at the time. Walter is living in his lies, causing suffering and oppression to those around him. He has told so many lies that he no longer knows what truth is. Margaret, on the other hand, feels the weight of the lies on her shoulders and is struggling to be released from their entanglement on her.
Christoph Waltz as Walter is both charming and terrifying. Something we know Waltz can do well. After an especially terrifying scene, Margaret has enough and she and Jane leave the house. They go to paradise – Hawaii. There, Margaret sets up a new life. Yet, still she is entangled by her husband’s lies.
Soelle offers a solution to this dilemma. “What is at stake,” she writes, “is not only distancing one’s self inwardly from roles (labels), but objectively abolishing them as well.” There is more to be done than just taking away the power of the oppressor. Margaret must accept the truth by abolishing the labels that have been placed on her.
In her new home two Jehovah’s Witnesses visit Margaret. Something between the women click, and Margaret invites them in. As Margaret reads the words from their scared book to Jane later that evening, the words about truth and the ethical value of truth-telling speak to Margaret. These words give her new life, and with it she stands up for herself, perhaps for the first time ever.
Amy Adams, while being interviewed on the red carpet at the Golden Globes (for which she won for Best Actresses), mentioned that she first saw Margaret as a victim, someone who suffers in oppression. After her own life experiences, however, Adams saw Margaret as a survivor. One who sought liberation and freedom, not only taking the power to oppress away from Walter, but also by not living into the label she was given. She no longer lives into the label she was given.
I can’t tell you much more, for I will ruin the film for you. But truth-telling is what sets Margaret Keane free.