Fri. Sep 18th, 2020

Contender or Pretender Series: Big Eyes

Welcome to the latest installment of Awardswatch’s Contender or Pretender 2014. This week we tackle Big Eyes, the real-life story of painting couple Margaret and Walter Keane, which will be brought to the screen by the celebrated director Tim Burton.

From left; Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, Keane's 'The Waif,' director Tim Burton
From left; Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, Keane’s ‘The Waif,’ director Tim Burton

The Hopeful: Big Eyes
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Release Date: December 25

Over a career that has spanned almost thirty years, Tim Burton has become American cinema’s foremost purveyor of all things bizarre, macabre, and just plain odd. His films have grossed billions of dollars, and the characters he has brought to life have become icons, from Pee Wee Herman to Edward Scissorhands, while regular collaborators such as Johnny Depp, Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter have become household names. His achievements are as diverse as presiding over the 2010 Cannes Film Festival’s jury to launching one of the first comic-book movie franchises with his Batman films.

And yet, for all that Burton has accomplished, Oscar recognition has been restricted to two nominations in the Animated film category: The first for 2006’s The Corpse Bride and the second for 2012’s Frankenweenie. His films have either been too offbeat, too commercial, or both, for the tastes of AMPAS, even his ventures into more serious territory such as Big Fish or Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Those two were arguably the closest he has come to the main categories, with the former receiving Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for Best Picture, and the latter winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture-Comedy/Musical. Big Eyes finds Burton returning once again to a more serious vein, as the project is more of a straightforward drama than anything he has attempted in years.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau in Ed Wood
Johnny Depp and Martin Landau in Ed Wood

For the project, he has reteamed with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriting duo who worked with him on the film many consider to be his best, Ed Wood. A biopic starring Johnny Depp as the so-called “Worst Director of All Time,” the film was one of Burton’s weakest at the box office, but gained a strong critical following and remains the only Burton film to win an Oscar in one of the top eight categories, with Martin Landau taking home the Best Supporting Actor statuette for his portrayal of horror icon Bela Lugosi.

That film established Alexander and Karaszewski as writing talents to watch, and they parlayed Ed Wood’s acclaim into two further biographical collaborations, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, both with Milos Forman. Neither resulted in an Oscar nomination for the pair and both films missed Best Picture nominations, with the latter in particular (one of a number of would-be Oscar vehicles for comedy superstar Jim Carrey) seen as a disappointment. Demand for the duo’s scripts dried up, and the only work the twocould find in the first decade of the 2000s were rewrites on Hollywood projects of dubious quality, such as teen spy film Agent Cody Banks. Their script for Big Eyes, which they initially intended to direct themselves, languished in development hell for years, with a number of actors entering and exiting the project. Kate Hudson and Thomas Haden Church were initially attached in 2008 before eventually dropping out, followed by Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds. But with Burton, initially only a producer on the project, agreeing to enter the director’s chair in early 2013, the project finally came together, securing Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as stars and the powerful Harvey Weinstein as distributor.

Walter and Margaret Keane rose to prominence in the 1950s and 60s for their kitsch paintings, characterized by figures of children with unusually large eyes (hence the film’s title). Their marriage ultimately ended in dispute over who was truly responsible for the art, culminating in a lawsuit where the judge asked them to engage in a “paint-off” for the jury. Margaret readily agreed and produced a painting in less than an hour, while Walter declined, citing an injured shoulder, resulting in Margaret winning the suit.

Portraying the central couple are two actors who have been very much in the eye of Oscar lately. Thanks to a pair of collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, Christoph Waltz has become perhaps the most unlikely two-time Oscar winner in history, while Amy Adams has scored five nominations in nine years, three of them coming in the last four. None of these nominations have resulted in a win, though her 2013 bid, for American Hustle, arguably saw her come the closest, as she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical and widely believed to have been the runner up by Oscar observers. The fact that Adams was the likely runnerup in 2013, coupled with the fact that it was her first Lead Actress nomination, cemented her status as being overdue for an Oscar win. The role of Margaret, a shy and introverted woman who comes out of her shell to break free of her domineering husband, seems to be ripe with the pathos necessary for a Best Actress win, especially combined with the fact that it would be Adams’ sixth nomination in the span of a decade.

However, one potential obstacle to Adams’ win would be the fact that her co-star may in fact have the juicier role. Reportedly, Margaret is a passive and subdued character for most of the film, which allows for Waltz to outshine Adams in the role of the charming but cruel huckster that is Walter Keane. With Waltz having won twice already, his reviews would need to be absolutely titanic in order to do so a third time, but a third nomination and first in the Lead Actor category seem like a very solid bet for the Austro-German veteran. The effect of Waltz being the standout of the film would most likely be to increase the chances that Adams joins the likes of Glenn Close with half a dozen failed tries for Oscar.

TWC's Harvey Weinstein
TWC’s Harvey Weinstein

Even if her performance is quieter than what the Academy usually goes for, Adams (and the film itself) can count on the assistance of the man that anyone with designs on Oscar would kill to have in their corner: Harvey Weinstein. Beginning his career as an upstart who blazed new trails for what independent films could do with AMPAS through campaigns for the likes of My Left Foot, The Crying Game, and Pulp Fiction, Harvey’s name has become almost synonymous with Oscar, and almost any filmmaker fortunate enough to secure distribution from his Weinstein Company can garner awards buzz almost overnight. 2013 was something of a lost year for him, as his films failed to take home a single Oscar for the first time since 2007, and he will surely be looking to return to the Dolby with a vengeance this year. Big Eyes seems to be one of the centerpieces of his efforts this year, as evidenced by the fact that he has given it a coveted Christmas Day release date, which remains the most high-profile launching date for an awards hopeful, despite the fact that it has been more than a decade since a December release has won Best Picture. Competition for box office on that day promises to be fierce this year, with Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and Disney’s Into The Woods looming as rivals. Though Burton’s name is undoubtedly a strong asset, reviews singling out Big Eyes from the rest of December’s horde of would-be contenders will be key.

The story of the Keanes, with its setting in the world of kitsch art, is similar to Ed Wood in that it is a natural fit for Burton’s sensibilities while being more grounded than most of his films. Burton’s stature has only grown in the twenty years since Ed Wood’s release, and if this effort receives a similar critical reception, AMPAS will likely embrace him with open arms for the first time, especially with Harvey Weinstein paving the way. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz should be mentioned in any conversation about top contenders in the lead acting fields, with the former in particular looking like a potential winner. If the film truly is a juggernaut, then talk may solidify around the Supporting players as well, whether for esteemed British veteran Terence Stamp (portraying art critic John Canaday), or prolific television player Krysten Ritter (as Margaret’s best friend DeAnn).

In the worst case scenario, the film will be yet another failed Oscar bid for Burton, but, if the film lives up to its promise, it could find itself taking home multiple statuettes on Oscar night.


[author image=”” ]Peter Cioth has been on the Awardswatch forums since the start of 2012. He’s a student in the real world and a student of pop culture, and he enjoys predicting who will win awards because it combines his love of pop culture with his love of competition and speculating about the future. His prediction prowess makes him a member of both the Emmy Experts and the Gold Rush Gang.[/author]

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