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Viewer Guide: “Empire of the Sun” and “Big Eyes”

November 10, 2021 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 CLASSIC | EMPIRE OF THE SUN

Empire of the Sun (1987).

This week’s classic is Empire of the Sun, the World War II epic adapted from J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, directed by Steven Spielberg. 

With a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, Empire of the Sun stars a 13-year-old Christian Bale in a career-making performance. Bale plays Jamie Graham, the son of a factory owner growing up in a privileged British enclave of Shanghai; although born and bred in China, you’d never know it from Jamie’s upper crust English existence, complete with a handsome manor house, an Anglican boys’ choir and incongruous masquerade parties. But the time is December 1941, and the Japanese army is hovering outside of Shanghai, having already taken control of the surrounding area. Oblivious to the looming attack, Jamie’s imagination is fully occupied by the fighter planes that he longingly gazes at in the sky. But with the family’s safety increasingly jeopardized, Jamie’s parents decide to leave Shanghai, yet soon discover they have waited too long. Separated from his parents in the city’s panicked chaos, Jamie makes his way back home, only to find himself utterly alone. Desperate for food, Jamie falls under the control of Basie, a calculating American black marketeer played by John Malkovich, whose larcenous motives only serve to further thrust Jamie into a harrowing wartime odyssey of survival. 

Also featured in the supporting cast are Joe Pantoliano, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers, as well as Ben Stiller in one of his first film roles. 

If Empire of the Sun reminds anyone of a David Lean-style cinematic epic, the esteemed British director was in fact originally attached to the project to direct, with Steven Spielberg as producer, but Lean dropped out after a year of preliminary work. A longtime admirer of Lean’s films, Spielberg admitted that he had wanted to direct the film himself as soon as he read J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel. Over 4,000 boys auditioned for the role of Jamie, but Spielberg’s then-wife Amy Irving suggested Christian Bale after working with the young actor in the 1986 TV film Anastasia: The Mystery of AnnaEmpire of the Sun’s location shooting in Shanghai required a year of negotiation to secure a three-week shoot involving some 5,000 extras. The internment camp sequence that forms the heart of the film was considerably shortened in the editing room, which greatly reduced the prominence of Miranda Richardson’s role. Nominated for six Academy Awards—but not Best Picture— Empire of the Sun was overshadowed at the ceremony by the year’s other Asian-themed historical epic, The Last Emperor. Still, Empire of the Sun remains one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest achievements. 

REEL 13 INDIE | BIG EYES

Big Eyes (2014).

This week’s indie is the 2014 biographical drama Big Eyes, directed by Tim Burton.  

Big Eyes recounts the stranger-than-fiction story of Margaret and Walter Keane, whose increasingly abusive marriage masked the truth behind one of the most successful yet divisive art world phenomenona of the 1960s. Opening in 1958, the film stars Amy Adams as Margaret Ulbrich, a recently divorced single mother in San Francisco pursuing her love of painting at weekend art shows, where she displays her arresting portraits of waif-like children with enormous eyes. Margaret’s work doesn’t attract much attention, except from Walter Keane, another “Sunday painter” played by Christoph Waltz. Outgoing and charming as Margaret is shy and self-effacing, Walter becomes Margaret’s protector and provider, using his gifts for self-promotion to get “the painting Keanes” noticed. When an opportunity to display their work at the “hungry-i” nightclub mushrooms into a runaway success, it all seems like a dream come true—except for Margaret. She discovers that Walter has been passing her work off as his own. Yet caught up by the commercial popularity of the paintings, Margaret labors in secret for years, until her resentful tolerance of Walter’s relentless exploitation finally reaches a breaking point. 

Also featured in cameo roles are Danny Huston as a gossip-minded columnist, Terence Stamp as a New York Times art critic, Jason Schwartzman as a snobby gallery owner, and Krysten Ritter as Margaret’s increasingly suspicious friend.  

Margaret Keane had initially been reluctant to authorize a film version of her story, but eventually granted movie rights to screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski as a way of offering a public apology for allowing her husband’s deception to continue for as long as it did. With Alexander and Karaszewski originally intending to co-direct themselves, the script languished in development for 11 years, with various stars including Kate Hudson, Thomas Haden Church, Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds in discussion to play Margaret and Walter. Director Tim Burton—an avid collector of Margaret Keane’s paintings—initially joined the project as a producer, having previously collaborated with Alexander and Karaszewski in 1994 to direct ED WOOD. Eventually, in 2013,  he took over as director. In the final film, Margaret Keane makes a cameo appearance sitting on the park bench behind Amy Adams in the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts location sequence. Margaret’s “Keane Eyes Gallery” is located on Geary Street near San Francisco’s Union Square. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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