Movies: Real Life, Reel Lives

By Ansen, David | Newsweek, November 20, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Movies: Real Life, Reel Lives


Ansen, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Ansen

Movies that take liberties with well-known characters--real or imaginary--are always asking for trouble. So director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson, who dreamed up "Fur," should probably be suiting up in armor. The subtitle of their movie--"An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" --offers fair warning. Instead of a biopic, the team behind the kinky romantic comedy "Secretary" has simply taken the surface particulars of the famous photographer's life (wealthy New York parents; dutiful commercial-photographer husband) and concocted a fictional beauty-and-the-beast metaphor to explain how a neurotic, repressed '50s wife (well played by Nicole Kidman) blossomed into a major artist. In the filmmakers' reverie, Arbus falls under the erotic spell of her mysterious upstairs neighbor Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), a sensitive but dominating wig maker and circus freak who happens to be covered from head to foot in hair. The movie has already been mercilessly attacked, and if you take it as an "explanation" of Arbus's art it's indeed reductive and banal. Yet this hushed sexual fantasy is strangely hypnotic: if the heroine had some other name, it might get recognized as a seductive and insinuating love story. It's too bad, in a way, that Diane Arbus had to be dragged into it.

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Movies: Real Life, Reel Lives
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