Anyone who lived through the 60s will remember the haunting paintings of children with enormous eyes. And almost none of them will know the story behind the paintings— until now, thanks to Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, and surprisingly, Tim Burton who has produced a whole series of strange and wonderful movies—-Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie, and is well known for blockbusters such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, its first sequel Batman Returns, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland. Big Eyes may well be the most normal movie he has ever done— a true story about a pathological liar who was a salesman and conman extraordinaire. A man named Walter Keane.
On one level this is a story about a woman in love who allows herself to be used by a charming man who becomes her husband. But she did not know he was also a world class liar until well after they were married. And to be a little fair to the story, what happened was at first a small lie which became a bigger and bigger lie the more successful the big eyes paintings became. Had they been abysmal failures that never sold, we would not be telling this tale.
There is a telling scene in the movie when Margaret, though a Methodist, is so deeply troubled by the lies being told, mainly the lie that her husband is the artist, and she is not, goes to a Catholic confessional. She ask the priest, is it always wrong to lie, in particular to one’s own daughter (yes, the lie went that far). The priest trots out the ‘the husband is the head of the family and perhaps he knows what is best for you all, so a small lie may be best to protect your daughter and support the family’. In other words— you should go along with the lie if it is in the interest of the greater good of the family. The movie raises in a powerful way the question ‘Is it ever right to lie’. As Margaret learns in Hawaii from the Jehovah’s Witnesses no less, the answer is no.
The story is set in the time period between 1958 and 1968 or so, a time of great social change in our country, including changing attitudes about the traditional family structure. The film powerfully portrays what can go wrong when a wife is submissive to an abusive egomaniac of a husband. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending, but not without a lot of trials (literally a trial in Hawaii) and tribulations. This is a story that needed and still needs to be told, especially in the wake of more and more conservative Christian preachers misleading lots of conservative Christians as to what the NT really has to say about the family structure, and about the husband as ‘the head of the wife’. In case you are wondering, it does not say that the husband should be a controlling liar who takes credit for his wife’s work. Nor does it say that a wife should submit to that sort of abuse. ‘Head’ means head servant in the NT, not authoritarian, domineering jerk.
On another level, this story is about selling one’s soul for money and success, something, sadly, all too many persons, including many Christians have done. The American definition of success is to some degree the problem here, and unfortunately many of the preachers of the health and wealth Gospel have bought into it, hook, line and sinker.
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are not alone in their fine performances in this film. Terrence Stamp does an excellent job of portraying an elite and arrogant art critic for the NY Times, although one can hardly imagine there being such an art critic (I’m kidding of course).
This film is to a real degree a morality play, and it is one that Christians really need to see. Unfortunately it has not had the wide release it deserves, nor the big publicity budget it needed to become visible at a season when there are so many new films, some of which are excellent.
Instead of taking your older children to a film that is grim from the Brothers Grimm, with the dark endings for which they are famous (I’m referring to that hodge-podge of Grimm stories called ‘Into the Woods’), why not take them to this film, which helpfully explores, in addition to the themes already mentioned, what a healthy mother-daughter and husband-wife relation should look like. It might prompt a good dialogue on family relationships.