Motion Picture Character of the Week

Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane

Just a few weeks ago, Christoph Waltz had the honor to be quoted in this column  – the chance that he soon would appear in the limelight on his own merits was almost certain.

Since his breakthrough in  Hollywood,  he has been shooting an tremendous quantity of movies, in most of them he had a juicy part  and every time with another renowned director.

This time it’s Tim Burton. Sadly,  Burton is far past his prime and lately only executes his estate with productions that are part kinda okay (“Frankenweenie”) and  part really dreadful (“ALICE”). Which is a pity, because he still has a knack for choosing interesting material. Here it’s the story of artist Margaret Keane’s life.

Margaret Ulbrich falls in love with the artist Walter Keane, who up to that time unsuccessfully tried to break through with paintings of romantic-impressionistic Parisian sceneries. Margaret’s oeuvre, on the other hand, seemed to have the finger on the pulse of that era – an era which appreciates the abstract expressionism of artists as De Kooning, Rothko and Pollock, but this isn’t reflected yet in what art the American middle class collects. Walter Keane swiftly realizes, that Margaret’s so-called Big Eyes (pictures of juvenescent girls with huge eyes, staged in over-stylized, romantic scenes) have a lot of pop-appeal and might be his chance to break-through. Therefore he unscrupulously poses as the artist, takes credit for them and sets a total sell-out in motion, by putting the motives on prints and merchandize (e.g. pencil cases).

Even this is not able to satisfy him. As nice as it is to have success on the market, he longs for praise from the critics – insofar as that he loses himself more and more in alcohol and amphetamine. The alienation between Margaret and him is getting bigger and bigger, especially since she eventually wants to be noticed as the artist and is looking for emancipation from her malicious husband. The world is supposed to know, that she is the painter of the pictures. Shortly after the world knows – she wins the inevitable libel- and slander-lawsuits. Walter Keane fades into oblivion.

“Big Eyes” remains incisive about its intention. Amy Adams, who plays Margaret Keane and who won a Golden Globe for it, doesn’t not work as a sympathetic figure, she also ruins every potential to read the story as a genuine story of feminist emancipation with her acting. Everything plays out too viscously emotional.

“Big Eyes” also does not succeed as a play about revision in the art world. It puts itself so much on moral high ground, that one cannot truly accept Burton’s reading of the material, which he purports by preceding the film with Andy Warhol’s quote: “I think what Keane has done is terrific.” It is clear, that Walter Keane has to considered to be an important agent of art history.  By applying strategies that were old even at his time, like screen-prints and mass marketing, he created a pop-cultural market hype, one that Andy Warhol was able to carry into execution competently later on. Is that still the big momentum for self-reflection in 2015?

As succinct as the movie stays in part, as excessively charged it can be in other parts. In the course of the movie Christoph Waltz increasingly lets on about his attempts to act against this dilemma. At the same time it becomes obvious, that even though Waltz is able to make good movies even better, his remarkable act is not able to sustain a mediocre one. Neither here nor in Michel Gondry’s “Green Hornet” can Waltz accomplish to rewardingly bring to effect his particular blend of classic method acting and his popular play with whimsical facial expressions. He partly even seems to play on against in a way that is entirely over-ambitious. For example in the scenes where the completely drunk Keane, feeling misunderstood by the critics, preys upon his wife and step-daughter.

It might be better for Christoph Waltz to give up on his passion for collecting directors. By any means does Tim Burton not manage to stage him as brilliantly as lastly Quentin Tarantino was able to do twice.


Translation from the german version: Denise Oemcke

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