(This film review of “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21st September 2007.)
Directed by Steven Shainberg
Written by Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander
Diane Arbus is one of the most interesting Jewish artists of the twentieth century, the creator of indelible documentary photographs of strange people that have become unforgettable icons for those seeking to identify the outcasts and fringes of American society in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Her influence in photography over the last fifty years has been profound, although she attained certain notoriety through frequent use of subjects who were mentally or physically handicapped.
Born Diane (pronounced “Dee-Ann“) Nemerov into a Russian-Jewish family of furriers living in New York City, she lived a privileged upper-middle class literate and cultured life: her older brother Howard was twice the United States Poet Laureate. She met her Jewish husband Allan Arbus at age 14 and married him against her parents’ wishes just after turning 18. Joining Allan in photography, their marriage produced two children but was a troubled one, ending in 1959. Diane committed suicide in 1971 by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, and then slitting her wrists. There are rumours that she filmed her own suicide, but no photos of this have been found.
The biopic of Arbus’ life entitled “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” is substantially more imaginary than a real portrait. Directed by Steven Shainberg and written by Erin Cressida Wilson, “Fur” (an obvious reference to her parents’ profession) is a strange art film populated by some extraordinary actors. Shainberg had his own connection with Arbus: he grew up in New York City in a house filled with her photos, as his uncle was a close friend of Diane. Shainberg reports that “In the same way that someone’s parents might read Dr. Seuss to them every night, I would walk up to my room and pass a picture of the Jewish Giant.” (This photo was one of her most famous: a 495-pound, 8-foot-tall “Jewish Giant” with his parents.)
Arbus – in real life short with dark curly hair – is played in “Fur” by the tall, willowy and very WASPy Nicole Kidman, in what could have been a fascinating casting triumph, but is a constant strain on the senses. While Kidman is always eminently watchable on-screen, she is one of a small but significant pool of current actresses who should not be cast in Jewish roles. Shainberg and Wilson also invent a new character to become a muse for Diane Arbus: a totally hairy Lionel Sweeney, played by Robert Downey, Jr. I will swim oceans to watch Robert Downey Jr. act, but what is mostly left once he is fully covered with hair (due, apparently to his character’s mysterious medical condition) is his voice, so most of the fun is removed. Sweeney becomes the facilitator of Arbus to the world of freaks, and an interesting “beauty and the beast” dynamic is created, including the requisite sexual tension. (Just to show that life imitates art in strange ways, Allan Arbus’ acting career took off after he took the lead role in Robert Downey Sr.’s film Greaser’s Palace, leading to a major role in the MASH TV series.)
“Fur” is indeed neatly written and wonderfully photographed with spirited performances, but I could not help wondering just what were the real influences that lead Arbus to her choice of unusual subjects? Here was a life full of such fascinating pain, hidden psychosis and breathtaking art; why did the film-makers feel the need to re-imagine it?