DIRECTED BY: Steven Shainberg

FEATURING: , , Ty Burrell

PLOT: Diane Arbus is an artistically repressed housewife whose creativity is stirred when a circus freak moves upstairs.

Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although I hesitate to rule any movie that includes Nicole Kidman shaving a wolfman off the list of the weirdest movies ever made, the fact is that the disappointing Fur never really flies.

COMMENTS: While I admire the chutzpah behind the concept of an “imaginary portrait” that, as the prologue explains, seeks to convey the “inner experience” of the artist, I’m afraid Fur doesn’t deliver the goods. Fur never really delves into Diane Arbus’ inner experience, instead choosing to metaphorize it as a Beauty and the Beast romantic fantasy that ends up feeling surprisingly conventional, given the (deliberately) ridiculous premise. That premise involves the future famous photographer (a wan and lovely Nicole Kidman) as a frustrated housewife who becomes obsessed with her new upstairs neighbor who always wears a mask in public and clogs her drains with wads of hair. The stranger is soon revealed to be Lionel, played by an extra-downy Robert Downey, Jr., and he serves as a White Rabbit that leads Diane/Alice down a rabbit hole into a Wonderland of carnivalesque visions. (The “Alice in Wonderland” references are heavy during the first Platonic night Arbus spends in his lair, including a tiny door, a note instructing her to drink a cup of tea, and even actual shots of a white rabbit). Fur gets its surrealistic impulses out of the way in that initial meeting between Diane and Lionel, which segues into Arbus’ dreams, broken up by establishing conversations with the always-in-control Lionel. Diane plans to shoot a portrait of her neighbor as her first artistic venture into photography, but rather than setting up a tripod, she spends more and more time gadding about Manhattan with Lionel, who introduces her to his glamorous cadre of freaks and outsiders that includes an armless woman, a prostitute, an undertaker, a transvestite, and, naturally, dwarfs, dwarfs, dwarfs! Her long-suffering and very devoted husband Allan understandably grows jealous at her absorption into Lionel’s world—I laughed out loud when, late in the film, he grows a thick beard to try to compete with Lionel’s locks! Although Downey’s “sensitive” performance received praise in some quarters, I wasn’t happy with the portrayal of the character. For someone who had been shunned due to his looks for his entire life, Lionel comes across as too confident a seducer of the submissive Diane. He’s far too cocky for a guy who looks like a cocker spaniel. The movie builds to a truly unsatisfying consummation that senselessly defangs—er, defurs—Lionel’s deformity, which is ironically the opposite of what Arbus’ photographs did to their subjects. Even accepting Lionel not as a real character but as the personification of the allure of the grotesque, Fur doesn’t give us much insight into Diane’s passion. Creativity it is simply analogized to romance, and left at that. We never get any sense of the fire Arbus must have had for her work, only her ardor for a symbol. Although I’m no fan of biopics and their enslavement to historical fact, I think that in Arbus’ case a more traditional, non-imaginary portrait may have served its subject better. Or, maybe just a portrait with more imagination.

Diane’s husband Allan Arbus, played here by Ty Burrell, is the same Allan Arbus who starred in Greaser’s Palace and other movies. He did not take up acting until after Diane left him to follow the photography muse. He even appeared in two films with the young Robert Downey, Jr.


“…far too impressed with its own weirdness.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Irene.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)


    1. I had no idea he was funny; I recognize Ty Burrell’s name but I can’t think of anything else I’ve seen him in. To be honest, while I was watching this I thought it was Joaquin Phoenix playing Allan Arbus–they sure do look alike.

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