'Marie,' 'Fur' show other side of biopics

'Marie,' 'Fur' show other side of biopics

Filmmakers mess with a legend at their own risk. Especially when it comes to commercial Hollywood biopics, it's dangerous to flout moviegoers' expectations. But this season, Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" and Steve Shainberg's "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" are refusing to take the safe route, throwing the biopic rule book out the window to fashion their own idiosyncratic takes on historical figures.

A long list of top-flight directors have learned the hard way that a biopic, no matter how marvelously wrought or critically hailed, won't score a boxoffice bull's-eye if it is too unconventional. Consider Michael Mann's "Ali," Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and "The Doors" and Bill Condon's "Kinsey" as well as actor-director Kevin Spacey's ill-fated portrait of Bobby Darin in 2004's "Beyond the Sea."

It remains to be seen how the market will respond to Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" when it opens Oct. 20. While early critical reactions were mixed at May's Festival de Cannes and last month's Toronto International Film Festival, Columbia Pictures is aggressively selling the movie to women of all ages, especially those interested in fashion and style. Coverage of the film in Vanity Fair, Vogue and the New Yorker along with Kitson Boutique window treatments, wild posting and pink Converse sneakers are penetrating the culture, Columbia marketing president Valerie Van Galder says. "In just the way that Sofia didn't treat this as a straight biopic, we're taking a unique approach," she says. "We're having fun with the marketing. The movie has captured people's imagination."

After optioning Antonia Fraser's exhaustive biography of the French queen in 2001, Coppola was less interested in the political context surrounding the Austrian emigre to the court of Versailles than in providing a close-up view of a teenager of exorbitant privilege. After Coppola learned that the young Hapsburg was only 14 when she was sent to Versailles and that she didn't consummate her marriage to Louis XVI for seven years, the director understood the young queen's lust for compensatory partying and shopping, saying, "It was interesting to hear the personal side of a mythic figure."

As Coppola worked on the script (taking a detour in the middle to make "Lost in Translation," for which she won an Oscar for best original screenplay), the director e-mailed Fraser with questions, according to Fraser's account in Vanity Fair. "Would it matter," Coppola wondered, "if I leave out the politics?" Fraser answered tactfully, "Marie would have adored that!"

One early draft of the screenplay featured the dramatic beheading by guillotine of Marie Antoinette and Louis, played in the movie by Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, respectively. But Coppola opted instead to end the movie as the royals left their palatial digs just after the fall of the Bastille. "I didn't want to do a standard biopic," Coppola says. "I wanted to feel the vitality and freshness of these young people, so we feel like we're there with them for a few hours, as opposed to looking back at history through varnish."

Coppola's visually sumptuous but slow-paced $40 million period extravaganza shocked Fraser and other early viewers with its anachronistic soundtrack. Coppola placed Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" against a montage of Marie Antoinette shopping for cakes and silk. "It was a song for that indulgence," Coppola says, "a young girl who has everyone waiting on her."

The risk that Coppola took in ignoring the world outside Versailles is that the film seems to accept and even sympathize with the superficial hedonism of the gluttonous royal who spends, eats and drinks with abandon on the eve of the French Revolution. There is a reason that history invented the phrase that has stuck to Marie Antoinette through the ages: "Let them eat cake!" "Because of the politics of the time, things were exaggerated, and she was made into a scapegoat," Coppola says, who while granting that her queen is "a flawed character" wanted her film to show "another point of view."

With "Fur," most film fans are expecting a movie that shows why New Yorker Diane Arbus was drawn to photograph outsiders and freaks, attracted a mentor in Richard Avedon, and committed suicide in 1971 at age 48. Instead, Shainberg and his 10-year collaborator, writer Erin Cressida Wilson, have crafted a delicately fantastical love story inspired by, but not limited to, the facts in Patricia Bosworth's 2005 "Diane Arbus: A Biography."

Shainberg believes that while "Fur" "may not literally portray events in Arbus' life as they actually occurred, it gets at another truth about her that is very accurate. With a lot of these biopics, I know that someone did this and this and this, but I don't feel that I know about them or feel them as people."

Shainberg grew up with photos of Arbus in his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment because his uncle, the novelist Lawrence Shainberg, was friends with the famous photographer. He films an imaginative portrait of the period in her life when Arbus, then 35, took a dive off the deep end. She stopped assisting her husband Allan in his portrait studio and started taking her own photographs. The movie, which will be released by Picturehouse on Nov. 10, asks the question: How did that transformation happen? "At age 35, Arbus sacrificed her whole life for her work," Shainberg says.

Shainberg had wanted to film the story of Arbus, who he never met, for about 15 years, but the rights were never available. "She was part of my very basic visual and artistic upbringing," he says. "I was always conscious of an essential mystery going on in her pictures, the fundamental mind and spirit you feel looking at them, something people have been trying to decipher for 30 years."

After the breakout success of his sadomasochistic romance "Secretary," Shainberg was able to persuade producers Edward R. Pressman and Bonnie Timmerman to see things his way. Working with a budget of just $17 million also allowed him more leeway to experiment. "If you take that central mystery as a starting point," he says, "it does not lend itself to a documentary or a biopic but to an imaginative exploration outside of known forms." Shainberg and Wilson throw Arbus, portrayed by Nicole Kidman, down the rabbit hole and into a wonderland peopled by freaks like Robert Downey Jr.'s character, a man who is entirely covered with hair.

Wilson had at first planned to use the character of a giant, summoning up one of Arbus' most famous photographs, but Shainberg felt that they were veering toward cliche. Instead, the photographer's hirsute first subject is based on a historic figure who Arbus never met. Wilson devised this "beauty and the beast" romance partly because she wanted to make a psychological connection to Arbus' furrier father. "She was raised knowing that her father killed animals and made them into beautiful things," Shainberg says. "There's a combination of grace, elegance and horror built into all furs."

One limitation the filmmakers faced was that they did not have permission from the Arbus estate to show her photographs in the film. After reading the script, Arbus' daughter Amy, who still comes to Shainberg family Thanksgiving dinners, told the director, " 'You're a very bad boy,' " he says. "They're justifiably controlling of their mother's place."

But Wilson and Shainberg insist that it doesn't matter. "Diane had complicated deep relationships with the people she photographed," Shainberg says. "That is the essential quality of the photographs' intimacy and power. I wanted to explore that moment. The movie had to be about the singular relationship between photographer and subject. If we could show one relationship, it would metaphorically explain all her relationships with all her subjects."

Even so, many moviegoers might want "Fur" to delve less into the artist's escape from bourgeois convention and more into her iconic photography. "That would have been boring," Shainberg told cinephiles at the Telluride Film Festival. "You already know about that."

For in defying expectations, Coppola and Shainberg are convinced they've both discovered what becomes a legend most.