Diane Arbus is one of those photographers whose images are likely to be recognized by people outside the narrow world of art
- a dubious distinction, since you could say the same thing about Christo
and Andy Warhol
. You know the pictures: the Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents, the twins, the old lady in pearls with her hat and purse out for a walk in a stark Central Park, the little people who used to be called midgets, the transvestite in rollers, the nudists who turn out to be utterly ordinary people (i.e., fleshy and grotesque), and of course, the mental patients dressed in costume at a Sunday picnic in New Jersey.
As much as we know a little bit about her pictures, we also think we know something of her biography: a girl born in 1923 into wealth in a family that owned a department store whose specialty was ladies' furs. (Note that Russek's, the once-esteemed emporium for the rich and famous, is long gone, but Arbus is more popular than ever.) She married young, to the photographer Allan Arbus, had two daughters, and then struck out suddenly on her own in work and in life, into the world that seemed populated by the very people that she photographed. Eventually Arbus, dead broke, would kill herself in 1971. For those of us watching from the outside, there seemed to be an odd predestination to all of this.
Fur, directed by Steven Shainberg and written by Erin Cressida Wilson, was inspired by the book Diane Arbus: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth. But Shainberg insists that he's made an imaginary portrait of Arbus, anything but a biopic. Shainberg is looking at a short period during Arbus's 30s, when she seems to be discovering that there's a lot more to the world than what she's been getting from her family, her husband and from the commercial fashion photographs that she's been helping her husband make. Just at that moment, in a coincidence that could never happen in any real biography (certainly not in Arbus's), an odd character who usually wears a mask moves in upstairs. Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey, Jr.) turns out to be Diane's muse and her ticket out of troubled princess-hood. Nicole Kidman, who plays Diane, may strain your ability to suspend disbelief at first, but ultimately this is a story about a character trapped in one world, seeking to find her place in another. Implicit in all this is that Arbus is being drawn into this new world, partly seduced, partly leaping ahead quite willingly, by the very kind of subjects that she will later photograph. Remember: this is an imaginary portrait.