A 'Fur'-Fetched Portrait Of Arbus? Precisely! Says the Filmmaker

Director Steven Shainberg with Nicole Kidman during filming of
Director Steven Shainberg with Nicole Kidman during filming of "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus," which opens here Friday. (By Abbot Genser -- Picturehouse)
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Filmmaker Steven Shainberg's voice is rising in expletive-riddled excitement, drawing warning glances from the guards at a photography exhibition at the National Gallery's West Building, and even an occasional shush .

Forgive Shainberg, but, at a moment like this, shush isn't his style. A Robert Frank photograph? He worked for the man his first year out of college and can describe and explain every single one of his photographs. Helen Levitt? Oh, she was friends with his mom, used to come out with the family to Cape Cod to summer. Look at that Walker Evans -- did you know that legendary photographer Diane Arbus was so terrified of him that upon arriving at his apartment, she refused to get out of the car?

Ah, Arbus. The reason Shainberg is here, at this moment, responding to the photographs in "The Streets of New York: American Photographs From the Collection, 1938-1958" like a hyperactive kid with the insight and intellect of a top photography critic. On Friday, his experimental take on Arbus's life -- "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" (starring Nicole Kidman in the title role) -- opens in Washington, to much buzz and some controversy over that whole "imaginary" part.

Before he sits down to explain that decision, though, he works his way methodically and eagerly through the exhibition, eventually landing in front of one of two Arbus photographs being shown, "Female Impersonator With Jewels," from 1958.

"When I look at this picture," he says, "I feel like I've gone two doors down the hallway further." Huh? He tries to explain, gesturing to the photographs that had come before. "Arbus said, 'You guys went this far, I'm going to go two doors further .' "

And that's exactly what Shainberg set out to do with the film.

Shainberg grew up with Arbus photographs on his walls, and stories from his uncle, the author Lawrence Shainberg, who was one of Arbus's close friends until her death, by suicide, in 1971. He's had a lifetime fascination with her, with Arbus's gift for capturing the unusual and eccentric -- dwarfs, giants, transvestites -- with an authenticity that haunts some and horrifies others. The logical and safe and predictable thing for her would have been to continue her life as wife and mother and assistant to her fashion-photographer husband, Allan Arbus. Only she didn't.

The logical and safe entrance into the story of Arbus's life would have been through Door No. 1: the Hollywood biopic. Not for Shainberg. Not for the guy whose breakout film, "Secretary," a sadomasochistic love story (starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal), is about the healing power of a good spanking over the boss's desk.

He wanted to make a movie "true to her spirit and true to what my connection to her is," Shainberg says. The result, "Fur," creates a fictional relationship between Arbus (whose first name is pronounced DE-ann) and a mysterious man, Lionel, who lives in the apartment above hers. Lionel, played by Robert Downey Jr., serves as her guide as she ventures into the darker sides of society that will eventually become the focus of her photography. He is, in fact, presented as the first portrait she takes.

In other words, Shainberg went straight to Door No. 3, and stepped into a world of fairy-tale noir, one inhabited by a fictional man-muse covered entirely in fur.

* * *

Spend two hours listening to Shainberg talk -- about his life, his art, his motivations and especially about his sense of fellowship with Arbus -- and somehow it hardly seems fair to render his life entirely through Door No. 1, a.k.a. the traditional narrative.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company