Watching the movies of Steven Shainberg, like the uncompromising 2002 cult hit Secretary, and his new film, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, is like pulling back a curtain on the often-disturbing private predilections of seemingly average people.
His latest foray into the beautiful and bizarre stars Nicole Kidman as Arbus and Robert Downey Jr. as the fictional Lionel, her unexpected inspiration. Arbus, the onetime wife of actor Allan Arbus (psychiatrist Sidney Freeman from M*A*S*H), began her adult life as a classic 1950s housewife, assisting her husband and desperate to escape her protected, predictable life. She then morphs into a cutting-edge photographer who captures life on the fringe, eventually committing suicide at 48. Her transition from the ordinary to defiant genius is the heart of the film.
Downey's performance in the contemplative, Zenlike role of Lionel Sweeney, Shainberg says, "is a shoo-in" for an Oscar nomination. Shainberg says the role was a challenge for Downey, who has a natural, frenetic energy.
It was Sweeney, and his tortured connection to the freak show of life, who first stirred Arbus' artistic muse. Of Downey's performances, the director says, "I wanted to find a stillness, and let the beauty of that stillness be his character. I wanted him to trust me, trust himself, that everything he's been through in his life is exactly what Lionel's been through."
And star Kidman? "You never exactly know what's going on with her," he says. "There's some . . . fundamental, complicated inner emotional life. And what's going on with this character throughout the film is a mystery to Arbus herself."
If you go
'Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus'
Veterans 24, Tampa; Burns Cinema, Sarasota. See movie listings on Page 2E for details.