In the 35 years since her death, Diane Arbus’ most famous photographs—the twin girls in identical outfits, the wild-eyed boy clutching a toy hand-grenade, the Jewish giant slouching in his parents’ Bronx living room—have become icons, indelibly etched in the modern imagination. And just as indelible is the popular myth of Arbus as an artist haunted by inner demons—a neurotic voyeur, a lover of freaks. Her tragic mystique is rooted not only in her unexplained suicide at age 48 but also in rumors of her sexual adventurousness, in her oracular reflections on art and life (“A photograph is a secret about a secret,” she wrote. “The more it tells you, the less you know”), and not least, in the audacious exoticism of her subject matter. When the Museum of Modern Art mounted the first Arbus retrospective in 1972, a year after her death, her startling images of dwarfs, transvestites, and nudists inspired criticism of the most visceral kind: It’s said that the MoMA staff had to wipe the spit off the photographs’ protective glass frames at the end of each day. The show, which traveled for three years after its New York debut, was a succès de scandale that cemented Arbus’ reputation as the Dark Lady of American photography.
The latest contribution to Arbus mythology is Steven Shainberg’s new film, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. The screenplay, by Erin Cressida Wilson (who also wrote Shainberg’s S&M charmer Secretary), is loosely based on Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography of Arbus. But as the subtitle implies, Fur is no ordinary biopic. Though it incorporates elements of Arbus’ life and work, the film “invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus’ inner experience,” the filmmakers note on a sepia-toned title card. What follows is a story that eschews the familiar account of Arbus as a doomed depressive, only to replace it with a fairy tale about a repressed housewife whose sexual and artistic awakening is brought about by a fateful encounter with a warm-hearted beast.
The movie takes place over a three-month period in 1958. Arbus, played by Nicole Kidman, is living with her husband Allan (Ty Burrell) and their two daughters in a Manhattan apartment that doubles as a photography studio. A dutiful wife and mother, Diane assists Allan in shooting fashion spreads for magazines and ads for Russek’s, her parents’ posh, Fifth Avenue department store, which specialized in furs. She chafes at her subordinate role as a glorified stylist, loses herself in erotic daydreams, and toys with the idea of pursuing photography on her own. Most of this is drawn from Bosworth’s biography, but the resemblance ends here.
Fur’s account of Arbus’ artistic transformation hinges on the liberating effects of her relationship with her new upstairs neighbor, Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), an invented character who suffers from a disease called hypertrichosis: His face and body are covered with hair. Beckoned by a skeleton key she finds nested in a clump of hair in her drainpipe, Arbus ventures up to Lionel’s artfully decrepit lair, camera in hand. But rather than take his portrait, she takes a bath. In the first of many steamy erotic encounters, the two of them soak together in Lionel’s swimming-pool-sized tub, where he begins the slow process of stripping away her sexual and artistic inhibitions. Later, when he takes her on a guided tour of New York’s freaky underworld—they visit a dominatrix, a funeral parlor, a swinging party where an armless woman makes small talk with dwarfs, giants, and transvestites—Diane politely leaves her camera behind.
The problem with this scenario as an expression of Arbus’ “inner experience” is that it divests her of any artistic agency. Arbus, who in reality was fiercely intelligent and articulate about her chosen art form, comes off as a benighted ingénue—not so much an artist as an adventurous ‘50s housewife in the process of discovering her bohemian side. For all its fictional elaboration, the film essentially remains faithful to the interpretation of Arbus’ career put forward in Bosworth’s biography. “To me, she was a wife and mother whose obsession was to be an artist,” Bosworth wrote in the August issue of Vanity Fair. “That’s what drove her, and that’s what I chose to explore.”
Of course, the myth of the woman artist who throws off the shackles of convention to pursue her own eccentric vision is a powerful one. It’s also easily adaptable to the narrative conventions of cinema: The recent biopics of Frida Kahlo (Frida, 2002) and Sylvia Plath (Sylvia, 2003) were both structured around similar tales of liberation and self-transformation. But what sets Fur apart is its conflation of Arbus’ artistic awakening with her erotic submission to Lionel, a virile man-beast who always maintains the upper hand in their relationship. In Secretary, Shainberg and Wilson handled the theme of sexual submission as a paradoxical form of liberation with ease and aplomb. But applied to the life story of a well-known artist, the device falls flat. We watch as Arbus abandons her role as an obedient wife and mother, only to fall under the erotic spell of an enigmatic outsider who hands her her life’s work on a platter; any sense of Arbus as an independent agent with her own artistic vision is lost.
Ironically, Fur’s reworking of the Arbus myth arrives close on the heels of a landmark event in photographic scholarship that helped complicate our picture of Arbus: that is, the publication of Revelations, a catalog accompanying a traveling 2003 Arbus retrospective. Revelations includes extensive excerpts from Arbus’ notebooks and correspondence, scores of previously unseen photographs, and a detailed timeline of her life; the Arbus found within is funny, curious, keenly perceptive, and obsessed with work, at once an adept technician, an inveterate list-maker, a voracious reader, and a preternaturally talented writer.
So why use Arbus as a pretext for yet another variation on Beauty and the Beast? (Lionel’s full-body coiffure is clearly based on that of the beast in Cocteau’s 1946 film version of the tale.) I’d like to believe that Fur is a sincere, if misguided, tribute, a failed experiment rather than a cynical appropriation of a glamorously edgy artist’s name and persona. But even so, Shainberg’s fictional approach to Arbus’ life profoundly misses the point of her work. While her subjects may seem plucked from the realm of fantasy, Arbus’ photographs are always firmly rooted in the poetry of fact. Adopting the blunt, straightforward idiom of the snapshot, her pictures confirm that truth is indeed stranger—and funnier, scarier, more thrillingly mystifying—than fiction.