ADAPTED FROM the 1984 biography by Patricia Bosworth, the new Arbus biopic has been a long time coming--twenty-two years, to be exact. Bosworth's article in the August issue of Vanity Fair, detailing the two-decade odyssey that brought her book to the screen--as Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, with Nicole Kidman in the title role--is a classic story of development hell, full of the Molierian drollery that characterizes the genre. And yet, as I read her tale of dropped options, fired writers, litigation, and really bad ideas (The Singing Photographer, starring Barbra Streisand), I felt more trepidation than glee. For one thing, there was the subtitle. Earlier reports had stated that the film would be called Fur--a reference, presumably, to Russeks, the department store owned by Arbus's father that specialized in mink, etc.--but the "imaginary portrait" part was new. Leaving aside the fact that the locution suggests that the film itself is imaginary, the phrase seemed odd in its old-fashioned, arty preciosity, like something out of an obscure mid-century "little magazine."
Then there was Bosworth's comment that director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who also worked together on 2002's Secretary, had conceptualized Fur not as a traditional biopic but as a "leap into fantasy." As I tried to picture what a fantastical, "imaginary" cinematic portrait of Arbus might look like (Maya Deren meets Midnight Cowboy?), it became clear that there were a lot of ways this film could go wrong. But Shainberg and Wilson surely deserved credit for taking a risky approach, and, having been an Arbus devotee since adolescence, I felt a certain proprietary interest in the whole project. So I put my misgivings aside and hoped for the best.
This charitable mood lasted about a quarter of the way through a screening of Fur, at which point it began to seem that The Singing Photographer might not have been such a bad idea after all. The film takes place over a three-month period in 1958; Diane is living with her family in a Manhattan loft, where she and her husband, Allan, run a photo studio. She has been flirting with the idea of "serious" photography for a while, but has yet to take it up in earnest. So far, the scenario correlates with the facts as put forward in Bosworth's book, but pretty much nothing else about Fur does. Played by Kidman with a kind of timorous intensity, Diane is repressed, stifled, cowed by her controlling parents, struggling with the constraints of '50s conformity. Bosworth, however, portrays a woman who, although indeed conflicted about her role as helpmeet, flouted social and sexual conventions more or less blithely throughout her adult life. In Fur we find Diane wearing a tight brocade gown to please her mother; from the relief she expresses when she unbuttons it, we gather that it makes her feel as if she were in a straitjacket. This is hard to square with Bosworth's description of the young married Arbus carrying a paper bag as a purse, eschewing lipstick and underwear, and wearing the same old shirtwaist dresses over and over despite her parents' remonstrations (and despite the fact that, as one friend recalls, the dresses were see-through in certain lights).
Fur attributes Diane's artistic awakening to the disinhibiting effect of her relationship with a fictional character named Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), an upstairs neighbor. Lionel has a fondness for outre fashions and for artfully decrepit, cluttered decor; he says that he is self-employed (making wigs), but seems to spend his days just sort of lolling around. New York is full of people like this--but Lionel is distinguished by hypertrichosis, a disease that causes hair to grow luxuriantly on every inch of his body, including his whole face. Since he's a love interest, the filmmakers have given him long, wavy, rather attractive tresses, making him resemble the offspring of a Wookie and King Charles II. …