Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Fur is, as noted in its subtitle, an imaginary portrait of a real photographer, Diane Arbus, a woman who made a rather sudden transition from a repressed 1950s housewife to a daring photographer of the fringes of society, as well as a participant in those fringes. When she was about 35, she separated from Allan Arbus, a successful commercial photographer who later became an actor (he was the Sydney the psychiatrist on the TV version of M*A*S*H), and started her own career. In her twelve years as a solo act she managed to test the outside of the envelope of alternative 1960s lifestyles in New York City, all the time chronicling with her lens the people she met along the way. She photographed visions of bourgeois ennui, but she specialized in the downtrodden, marginalized people of society.

In Arbus's own words, "Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don't quite mean they're my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There's a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats."

Her work became popular enough to warrant one-woman shows in the important New York museums and galleries, and to inspire a collection of articles by Susan Sontag, On Photography, in which the formidable essayist tried to expressed why she was simultaneously fascinated with and repulsed by Arbus's work.

In 1971, at age 48, Diane (DEE-ann) swallowed a vast quantity of barbiturates and cut her wrists, thus assuring that she would die from one or the other, and elevating her to the pantheon of rebellious, romantic, troubled, unconventional 1960s artists who would die from suicide or O.D.: Joplin, Hendrix, Sylvia Plath, Jim Morrison, etc.

The movie Fur pays essentially no attention to Arbus's career as a photographer. In fact, if you do not already know about her work and its themes, you will leave the theater no more enlightened, other than to realize that she was interested in freaks. The film never really shows the part of her life when her career had blossomed, nor does it not explain how she developed her technical or artistic skills. (It wasn't from her experience in fashion photography with her husband. When she decided what she wanted to do, she studied the art of photography under a master.) What the film does do is to ask a theoretical question, "What set of circumstances could have transformed a Good Housekeeping housewife of 1957 into a kinky fetishist in 1967?" It imagines those circumstances as follows: Arbus meets Lionel, a sideshow freak with a condition that makes him appear to be Michael Landon in that Teenage Werewolf movie. (This is a completely fictional character.) She is immediately fascinated by him, then attracted to him. Through her Beauty and the Beast affair with the human werewolf, she meets the people who used to be his colleagues on the sideshow circuit, and is transformed by her fascination with their world, and is astounded to find out how essentially normal and mundane it is beneath the sensational exterior. She begins to ponder the nature of normality itself.

Fur was directed by Steven Shainberg, who also directed the kinky Secretary. He seems to have a bit of the Arbus spirit in his own soul. Shainberg does an excellent job at capturing the tension inherent in Arbus's point of view, as she takes her first tentative steps from the mainstream into an underculture which both excites and terrifies her.

The presence of Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey provides some real heft to this project, but the film still ultimately fails - for two reasons:

First, Downey's wolfman make-up is inadvertently hilarious when it should convey dark mystery and an ominous sense that the forbidden and outré are nearer than they seem. The film works perfectly when Downey is covered by grotesque masks, but falls apart when the teenage werewolf faces the camera squarely and makes us giggle.

Second, the film drags on and on as we wait for Diane's transformation and then fails to show us the results after the great awakening finally arrives. It feels as if the Ben Hogan story ended with the car accident and a question about whether he could ever come back. In fact, the film never shows any examples of the art which Diane would develop after her cultural epiphany. Fur is Diane Arbus without the photographs, just as the recent Paltrow movie was Sylvia Plath without the poems.

It might be a better movie if it had committed to being 100% fictional or 100% biographical. With a better make-up job on the Beast, the movie could stand by itself with no anchor to Diane Arbus as the Beauty, since the story treats the biographical details as mere background elements in the dream-tale of how the Arbus metamorphosis might theoretically have happened. As it stands, Fur is an earnest and slick art film with only cult appeal. Most people are reluctant to watch a pretentious real biography of a tortured artist, let alone a make-believe version of same.



* widescreen anamorphic

* full-length director's commentary

* two very short, insignificant deleted scenes




It was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography.

2.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
40 British Consensus  (of 100)
30 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
50 Metacritic.com (of 100)


6.2 IMDB summary (of 10)


Box Office Mojo. It grossed $223,000, never appearing in more than 30 theaters.


  • Nicole Kidman shows her bum and the side of one breast in a dark sex scene with Robert Downey
  • Kidman's body double shows her bum and the other breast in a daylight scene in a nudist camp.
  • Lynne Marie Stetson is topless  in a conversation in a nudist camp.
  • Boris McGiver and Marceline Hugot are completely naked in the opening scene.
  • Gwendolyn Bucci is topless as a dominatrix.
  • Several people are seen naked in the nudist camp, mostly in the background, far from the camera, and out of focus
  • Robert Downey shows his bum twice, once whilst being shaved, and the other while making whoopee with Kidman.


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is a highly competent movie, directed and performed by people with a real genius for atmosphere and mood. All of these people should have used their genius for good instead of evil.