SHE was considered a safe bet for her third Oscar nomination, but Nicole Kidman’s 2007 hopes took a tumble last week with the first public showing of her controversial new film Fur, based on the life of the late American photographer Diane Arbus.
Having won the 2002 best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Kidman appeared to have landed another dream role when she signed up to play Arbus, a tormented genius who became famous for photographing human freaks and who committed suicide in 1971.
Yet Fur’s early promise, which was further enhanced by a row between rival European film festivals over where it would receive its premiere, has been severely dented by a rash of poor reviews.
The film’s unconventional treatment of Arbus’s life — including an imaginary character whose skin is completely covered in fur — has also stirred concern in photographic circles that the artist’s legacy will be tainted by Kidman’s portrayal. The film shows little of Arbus’s photography and makes no attempt to explain her suicide.
The Wall Street Journal listed Fur as one of the “stinkers” of the Telluride film festival in Colorado. Variety, the Hollywood newspaper, said it carried “far more metaphorical weight than dramatic force”. Anne Thompson, the influential deputy film editor of The Hollywood Reporter, declared: “Fur is not an Oscar contender.”
The film is based on a 1984 biography by Patricia Bosworth, a former model who was photographed by Arbus. The book angered members of Arbus’s family by alleging that she slept with some of her subjects.
Bosworth immediately sold the film rights to the MGM studio, which originally intended to cast Diane Keaton as Arbus. The project then hovered in Hollywood limbo for almost 20 years, until a new director, Steven Shainberg, took over.
To many Hollywood insiders, the project seemed a certain winner for Kidman, whose name had until recently been circulating alongside Dame Judi Dench (for her role in the film of Zoe Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal), Dame Helen Mirren (for The Queen) and Kate Winslet (for Little Children) in early lists of Oscar predictions.
Arbus was an extraordinary character who became one of America’s most innovative and distinctive artists. Starting as a fashion photographer, she became fascinated by human abnormality and began to turn her lens on dwarves, transvestites and circus freaks. Among her best known work, shot mainly in black and white, were such iconic shots as “Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx”; “Mexican dwarf in his hotel room”; and “Albino sword swallower at a carnival”.
Yet Shainberg decided at the outset that he was not interested in making a conventional “biopic” that traced Arbus’s life up to the moment she slit her wrists and swallowed sleeping pills before dying in her bath. He produced a new screenplay that he described to Bosworth as “a leap into fantasy”.
Shainberg decided to focus on a three-month period in Arbus’s life when she was making her transition from commercial photographer to artist. “Basically, in 1958, after working in her husband’s photography studio for 15 years, Arbus strikes out on her own,” Shainberg said.
To dramatise the change, the director invented a character — a mysterious neighbour, played by Robert Downey Jr, who suffers from a rare disease that covers his skin with fur. Shainberg described the character as “metaphoric and a literal freak — all the people she went out and photographed, rolled into one”.
The film, due to be released in America in November, looked set to become one of the most talked-about of the year when Kidman was invited to open a new film festival in Rome in next month. An row promptly broke out between Rome, Venice and Cannes over which festival was securing the best films. Venetian officials sniffily suggested that Rome was getting the films that Cannes and Venice had rejected.
Yet the early word on Fur has dampened expectations and persuaded critics to place their bets on Winslet and Beyoncé Knowles, the singer and actress whose performance in Dreamgirls is said to be a revelation.
Most critics agreed last week that while Kidman had far from disgraced herself in Fur — Variety described her acting as “quicksilver subtlety” — it was Downey who dominated the film.
Nobody seemed to like the director’s reworking of the beauty-and-the-beast theme. “Kidman and Downie did what they could, but [the film] is as lifeless as it is pretentious,” declared the Wall Street Journal.