Photographer Arbus' work noticeably absent from ‘Fur'

Contra Costa TimesDecember 15, 2006 

"Fur," the new movie about photographer Diane Arbus, comes with a subtitle, "An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus." This is helpful, because otherwise one might take the movie literally, leading to the mistaken belief that the extraordinary talents of one of the 20th century's greatest photographers lay dormant until they were stimulated by an extremely hairy man.

The person who came up with this metaphor for Arbus' artistic awakening is Steven Shainberg, whose last directorial effort was the witty "Secretary." That film featured Maggie Gyllenhaal swapping her fetish of self-mutilation for the pleasure of being spanked by her boss.

In "Fur," Arbus (Nicole Kidman) lives with her husband Allen (Ty Burrell) and daughters in a New York apartment. She and Allen run a successful photography studio together, but Diane (pronounced Dee-anne) has begun to chafe under the constraints of her buttoned-up, late-1950s lifestyle.

That's the biography part. The imaginary aspect begins when, late one evening, a new tenant moves into the building. Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.) is swathed in gloves and headgear that allows her to see only his eyes, but that's enough to provoke both curiosity and attraction.

Soon she's rapping on his door. Lionel has a condition that causes his hair to grow at an astounding rate; he looks like a wolf man. He's put this to use at the circus, but is retired now. He forces her to reveal her inner secrets. Eventually, but only through his encouragement, she will take her first photograph.

None of Arbus' photos are featured in the film, a decision that may have something to do with copyrights, or perhaps, Shainberg's artistic inclinations. It doesn't serve the audience well, though; while Arbus was well known in the '60s and '70s (she committed suicide in 1971), there are plenty of people today who've never seen one of Arbus' defiant yet tender images of the imperfect.

Kidman looks nothing like Arbus, but then again, she looked nothing like Virginia Woolf before the nosemakers on set of "The Hours" got hold of her. To play Arbus, her hair has been darkened, but she's still china-doll perfect Kidman, looking ready to swoon at any second. The performance is all about sharp intakes of breath. Kidman is a marvelous actress, but she's chosen to, or has been directed to, portray Arbus' uncertainty as girlishness. Obviously, Arbus was once a girl, but the word girlish is not the first one that comes to mind when her name is mentioned.

Shainberg used Patricia Bosworth's biography "Diane Arbus" as the basis for the movie, but only very loosely. He's chosen to structure the film instead on metaphors, as diligently as if he were trying to qualify for the Super Duper Artistic Award.

But honestly — and all you chauvinists out there, reach for your poison pens — does it have to be a man that turns her into an artist? Sure he's just a metaphor, but it's still an absurd and insulting suggestion.

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