Arbus Ambush! Fur Fails to Fly

111306 article rex Arbus Ambush! Fur Fails to FlyThere are many things I don’t understand about the movie business, but one of the most troubling is the fast-lane rush to buy up great books in order to change, trash, deconstruct and eviscerate them of everything that made them great in the first place. Even in an industry famous for castrating literature and rendering it powerless, it is impossible to figure out what motivated the assassins who have turned Diane Arbus: A Biography, Patricia Bosworth’s brilliant and insightful book about the tortured photographer whose enigmatic visions changed the face of art, into an asinine horror called Fur, a movie with Nicole Kidman that is so bad it’s pretty damned near unbearable.

Front and center, the marketing ploy for Fur describes it as “An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.” Translation: It’s a fairy tale. The facts are speculative, the characters and events boldly fictionalized, the objective incomprehensible. All unnecessary, if you read the book. Patricia Bosworth is a meticulous researcher, a riveting stylist, and an immensely respected journalist who delved deeply into the life of a cult figure, solved all of the mysteries surrounding her shocking 1971 suicide, and then left no stone unturned in her 1984 biography. Every ingredient is there for a responsible filmmaker to plumb the depths of an anguished soul torn between affluence and respectability, delusion and despair. Fur pretends the reason that an educated wife and mother crossed over to the dark side was a creepy, masked neighbor named Lionel—a circus freak who was covered with fur from head to toe. O.K., so Diane (pronounced Dee-Ann) was tired of playing assistant to her photographer husband Allan’s conventional fashion shoots, and anxious to escape the dead-end world of commercial advertising and use her own camera to explore a few lower depths Gorky never dreamed of. It was this double career standard that plagued her throughout her career. Not one of the dramatic conflicts that ruined her life is depicted here. The reasons she was drawn to orgies, freak parlors, morgues and mental institutions could fill a book on abnormal psychology, and the Bosworth bio does a more sobering job of explaining it all than a single frame of this frazzled film. At the time of her death, she was photographing both the illegal S&M bondage dungeons of the gay underworld and children’s party dresses for The New York Times Magazine. All you have to do for a movie that burns a hole in your memory is just show what she was doing. You can’t make these things up. Only a fool would try. Fur has two of them at full tilt: director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who have turned the metaphorical into the metaphysical, with all of the pretentious baloney such a waste of time embraces. You have to wonder what they were smoking.

Diane Arbus’ life was surreal enough without the bizarre nightmare into which these clueless people plunge her. The big problem with Fur is not the dwarfs, nudists, amputees and bearded drag queens that parade through this sideshow, but the film’s failure to make any of them interesting. You get no sense of why Arbus was the idol of everyone from Andy Warhol to Richard Avedon, or why her gutsy work remains so influential today. (Without her, there would be no Robert Mapplethorpe.) The subject was such a complex symbol of disenfranchised 70’s New York that reducing her to the role of a boring cipher is the film’s biggest sin. Given the fact that she ultimately descended into a moral abyss without an exit and died in a bathtub of blood, you’d think the movie would capture some of her pain. But the director doesn’t reveal one clue to her mental collapse. He even gives the movie a happy ending! If you are really interested in the life of Diane Arbus, the paperback edition of Patricia Bosworth’s mesmerizing book is being published again this week. My advice is forget about the movie and grab this literary gem fast. You will really learn something. You will learn nothing from Fur, except how untalented filmmakers get away with murder.

Under such dire conditions, Nicole Kidman, in a mousy brown fright wig and pinafores that would turn the stomach of a Harlem hooker, is so miscast in the lead that you just have to assume she never bothered to read the script. Robert Downey Jr., as the barbigerous gorilla upstairs, lures Diane to his gothic bedroom, where he seduces her with a grotesque game of Beauty and the Beast and eventually talks her into deserting her family and shaving the fur from his body. Their love affair is tender and terrifying, but like everything else in the movie, it is also preposterous. As created by horror makeup expert Stan Winston, Mr. Downey combines the pelt of a werewolf with the hairdo of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, and is the only man on the planet who could go to a Yale-Harvard game in a raccoon coat without wearing one.

Heath Does H.

Cate Blanchett followed her Oscar-winning success by going home to Australia to play a junkie in a low-budget trash wallow called Little Fish. Quite understandably, it vanished without a trace. Now Heath Ledger has done the same thing. On the crest of a wave after his breakthrough, Academy Award–nominated performance as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, he returned to his native Australia to make Candy, a small independent film about a heroin addict. These Aussies have a need to go home, pump some adrenaline into their anemic film industry, and exorcise some of their demons. When Candy premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, Mr. Ledger said he did it because it’s been eight years since he’s been able to use his own accent in a film, and because not much is being offered to Australian actors in their own country. Despite the fact that Mr. Ledger has a love-hate relationship with the Australian press, he took the role of a scruffy junkie who drags his own girlfriend into the addict’s world of self-destruction. During his promotional tour for Brokeback Mountain, he made front-page news by spitting on photographers, who retaliated by dousing him with water pistols. He sold his house in Australia and now lives with actress Michelle Williams and their daughter in Brooklyn.

But what about Candy? The corny publicity in Australia labeled it “a romantic triangle involving a hero, a heroine, and heroin.” It’s sad, sobering and relentlessly grim, but it deserves more serious attention than that. Stripped of his usual clean-cut appeal, Mr. Ledger plays Dan, a young poet whose addiction threatens to kill what is most precious to him: his beautiful soulmate, a painter named Candy (played by the remarkable newcomer Abbie Cornish). Through their desire to share everything, the two slacker artists begin fresh and full of hope and descend to the depths of Hell. Candy only snorts the white stuff, but it’s not long before she’s injecting, and from that moment on their lives are changed forever. They shoot up riding through a car wash, in the bathtub and public toilets, robbing houses and selling their bodies. The couple get married but find themselves incapable of holding down jobs; always desperate for money for the next hit, the tension of their downward spiral leads to titanic blowouts. When Candy gets pregnant, they make a vow to stop using, but they are helpless. Their problems are compounded by Candy’s terrible relationship with her mother (the fine Australian character actress Noni Hazlehurst), who can see what Dan is doing to her once-precious daughter and hates him for it. They plan to leave Sydney for Melbourne, get on a meth-adone program and quit for good. But by the time their story comes to a tragic end, there’s nothing left of themselves to destroy.

The transformation that Dan and Candy go through, from the puppy love of the opening sequence in an amusement park to the depravity and squalor they later endure, is shocking to watch. The performers rise to the horrors in a big way, with needles in every vein. Geoffrey Rush lends charm as a suave, gay chemistry professor and surrogate father who provides them with the 100 percent pure smack he cooks up in the lab. Mr. Ledger admits he practiced on the veins in a prosthetic arm, and the director, Neil Armfield, milks maximum repulsion from the exp­er­ience. A well-made but ultimately depressing original take on junkie romance, it is not an entertainment, but it does say a lot about Heath Ledger’s versatility as an actor, and it even contains occasional splashes of dark humor. There have been other movies about heroin addicts, but none more harrowing than Candy.

Lamas-O-Rama

For less stress and more amore, skip the movies this week and bask in the sunny Latin spell cast by Lorenzo Lamas. He calls his debut nightclub act at Feinstein’s at the Regency (through Nov. 11) “Lorenzo Sings About Love” for sound and logical reasons. After four marriages, four divorces, six children and gossip-column romances with enough starlets to bust the battery in a calculator, love is a subject with which the Latin lothario is on intimate terms. After years on the nighttime soap Falcon Crest, numerous seasons of the daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful and a list of action movies as long as the legs of a Harlem Globetrotter, he has nothing to prove in the acting department. But a Latin hunk who can also sing? The odds are daunting.

Or maybe not. His pop was glamorous gaucho Fernando Lamas. His mom is luscious redhead Arlene Dahl, a movie star for whom Technicolor seems to have been invented. And his stepmother is the one and only Esther Williams. That ain’t celery tonic. I mean, something’s gotta rub off. And in an eclectic act that often seems to be all over the place musically, enough finesse, charisma and testosterone have rubbed off to keep the audience magnetized. But even if the genes were dusted with stardust, Lorenzo is very much in control of his own spotlight power. At 48, a lot of what used to be prep-school cuteness has finally morphed into a craggier Latin edge. He’s handsome. He’s warm. He has a wonderful sense of humor about the many phases of his life. He connects with the audience. He sings with a strong, self-assured baritone that is always in tune. From a driving “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” to a catchy foxtrot tempo on “The More I See You,” Mr. Lamas displays a surprising versatility. If I have pause for concern, it is simply this: He is better than his act. Proof of the flaming flan are his forays into the exotic embers of Latin torch songs. Dreamily caressing ballads like “Amore” or “Solamente Una Vez,” he exudes the throbbing romantic enchantment of a young Julio Iglesias. On “Perfidia” and “Kiss of Fire,” he sends his audience into a frenzy. Alas, on Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” he’s just biding his time. And just because Jane Wyman, his legendary co-star on Falcon Crest, introduced Johnny Mercer’s jump tune “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” doesn’t mean it’s right for him. But don’t get me wrong: He’s got the looks and he’s got the chops. I don’t know how serious he is about singing, but when he learns his strengths, conquers his inhibitions, and cashes in on his sex appeal with a more casual sensuality, Lorenzo Lamas could become his own cottage industry.