Genius in 'Fur'

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Dir. Steven Shainberg; writ. Erin Cressida Wilson, Patricia Bosworth (book); feat. Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander (R)
Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson is a woman of many metaphors. This is an odd thing to say about someone. Most people don't aspire to be metaphorical the same way they aspire to be, say, intelligent, or even mysterious. Some artists do, though usually only in the context of their work. With Wilson, her work tends to become an extension of her life; it's hard for her not to find metaphors everywhere she looks.

Her latest project, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, was written while she was cloistered away in a third-floor Manhattan brownstone just off of Washington Square Park; in the final trimester of her first pregnancy, she could barely even waddle downstairs to answer the door when take-out was delivered. "It was interesting to have this boy inside me, kicking me, trying to birth himself as I was trying to birth this very difficult screenplay," she says of the experience that took place, she now realizes, during the last period of her life that she'll ever truly be alone.

Opting to forgo the tried-and-tested method of the traditional (historically accurate) biopic, Wilson chose to use fairy-tale-derived metaphors and imaginings to examine the  relationship between Arbus, who is considered one of the most innovative photographers of the 20th century, and her subjects. "For instance, the photo of the Jewish giant" - one of Arbus's most famous works - "was taken 10 years into their relationship," Wilson says. "So what you're seeing is that one day she took a photo and it was great, but what you're really seeing is 10 years of a relationship."

To achieve this expression of Arbus's personal history, it was necessary to create a conduit, a character who would fictionally represent all the factors that contributed to her artistic birth. "In so doing, I found that Lionel became her imagination, her muse, her metaphor for the relationship she developed with her own imagination," Wilson explains of the wolfman "freak" brought to life by Robert Downey Jr. "What he was going to be was a big question because it was more interesting to me that his eccentricity was in his  personality and lifestyle, rather than his outward appearance."

Lionel, a former circus attraction, moves into the brownstone Arbus shares with her husband and two daughters. From upstairs, he begins to engage Arbus with Alice in Wonderland-type games and in no time becomes the Beast to her Beauty ... or is it the other way around? "She's finding the Beast within herself," Wilson points out.

The screenwriter drew inspiration for Arbus's home - a building she saw representing Arbus's complex imagination - from the brownstone in which she wrote the film. "At the very beginning of writing it, a very eccentric artist in a suit moved into the attic above me and made a lot of noise," she explains, an act that Lionel recreates in the movie. "We became friends. Not so much because we talked a lot, but because we would keep each other company through the sounds we would make just walking across the floor."

And so Lionel began to take shape, a hirsute, one-time "dogboy" who, despite his outward appearance, is a sexual and artistic revelatory force that awakens the freak inside the photographer. This isn't the first time Wilson has used a powerful male figure to serve as a guide to female emancipation; James Spader played a similar role relative to Maggie Gyllenhaal's character in Wilson's last screenplay, Secretary.

"The thing is, I'm pulled toward writing feminine pieces that fully embrace the erotic, intellectual glory of men," she says. "So I like to walk a line where a woman is becoming herself, becoming free, becoming liberated in a world where she loves and perhaps reveres men. That's always been of interest to me as a way to write, though never politically correct, but always politically empowering, I feel."

When Fur's emotional climax approaches and Arbus shaves away Lionel's coat of hair, the man underneath is revealed to be every bit as beautiful as Arbus. But no less damaged. "It was important to me, when you stripped it away, he was still a unique weirdo," Wilson says.

It's not difficult to imagine that Wilson herself doesn't mind being called a freak either. She seems to revel in it, as she conjures up metaphors to explain how it all makes a lot more sense than you first thought.


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