Christoph Waltz knows the art world. He says a friend of his is a “master forger,” who is currently serving time. “If you go to the Met or the Modern Art, that much I can guarantee that at least one or two in either museum are his. I guarantee,” he tells us. As it happens the movie he’s promoting — Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” about the painter Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams), whose husband, Walter (Waltz), long took credit for her work — is about someone able to quickly churn out art. But Waltz doesn’t think his character is all bad, despite what some may say.
How aware were you of Margaret Keane’s work in Europe?
They were hugely successful in Europe. But nobody knew where they came from — and nobody cared. It was American and maybe that was part of their success. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, America was still 10 years, at least, ahead of Europe. In the wake of globalization that lead has narrowed. But back then [Keane’s paintings] were things that were exotic. You could show that you were with it and very hip and trendy without really having to make an effort.
Why do you think they were so popular everywhere?
They’re not complex, so everybody can consume it without further effort. If they were complex an effort would be required, and that would infringe upon the profits and proceeds considerably, I’d think. Take the lyrics of most pop songs: if I talked to on that level you’d hit me. But I avoid the term “lowest common denominator” because I don’t think there is a common denominator with people, so therefore there can’t be a lowest one.
It’s interesting how easily Margaret was able to keep churning them out.
The movie hired an artist, because all these paintings needed to be reproduced all the time. There were about 340 paintings in the movie, and they needed to be painted. You can’t ask Margaret Keane to do that. So a painter was hired and a whole workshop set up for her. And she churned them out. By the end of a movie she could whip off a Keane. You just told her what was on it and [swirls around hand] it was a Keane.
Walter isn’t a very nice person…
I think he is a nice person. But everything I have to say about him I tried to play. It’s very, very interesting to hear people’s reactions. Some, mostly women who are very staunchly for the feminist cause, find him psychotic, despicable. That’s a valid opinion, I guess. Men have a slightly different reaction, as was to be expected. But I have yet to hear the same opinion about him. I find that fantastic. That, ideally, is what this should be for — to tell the story as well as we can and let you decide.
It does at least damage their marriage.
I’m sure it was a wonderful relationship at first. And then these exterior forces started to pull at him, and the true character comes to the surface. When you’re asked if you could just go and kill someone in cold blood, you say, “Never, I never could.” But nobody’s ever asked. There’s an idea you have of yourself, but once you have practical proof of something else in you it’s unavoidable. And if that happens when you’re in a relationship, what do you do? Because all of a sudden both partners are faced with a different relationship. That’s more or less this story. If the relationship has changed but both are dependent on each other, then there’s a problem.
Walter was undeniably a marketing and business visionary, though. For better or worse, he revolutionized how art was sold.
That just wasn’t what she wanted. But she didn’t mind the benefits.