The Fabelmans is one of 2022s greatest films, and the scene that most encompasses the point behind its story is one in which Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) lectures Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) on the hard-yet-rewarding life of an artist — a scene that any struggling artist can relate to. While the large majority of Steven Spielberg‘s latest is a fictional retelling of his own upbringing and the eventual dissolution of his parent’s marriage, it does also fall into the camp of our greatest living filmmakers making movies about movies. While Sammy Fabelman’s journey into making movies is initially viewed through an exciting and wondrous lens, it is when Uncle Boris enters the film about halfway through its runtime that Spielberg crashes reality down onto everyone’s heads. Boris’s monologue on the life of an artist is simultaneously funny, inspiring, sobering, and depressing. It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring musician, painter, poet, filmmaker, or an artist that dabbles in various mediums, this masterfully crafted and performed scene is bound to hit every creative mind hard in the chest.
How Does Uncle Boris Fit Into ‘The Fabelmans’?
The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg’s latest film, one that chronicles his upbringing with a particular focus on his budding love for filmmaking, as well as his parents’ difficult marriage. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play Mitzi and Burt Fabelman, stand-ins characters for Spielberg’s parents, in two of the film’s many Oscar-worthy performances. Their performances are the backbone of the film, and while Sammy’s journey to becoming an eventual legend in film history is exciting, their story gives the film a melancholic core, and eventually, turns devastating. While Williams and Dano are truly great here, nobody in the film deserves accolades and praise for their work more than Judd Hirsch as Mitzi’s estranged uncle, Uncle Boris.
Boris arrives unannounced at the Fabelmans’ new Phoenix, Arizona home about halfway through the film. While Mitzi dreads interacting with him at first, he turns out to be a pretty nice guy, so they let him stay at their home for the night. They soon learn that he is a former lion tamer and has worked in the film industry, something that intrigues Sammy and gives them room to bond over. While Hirsch’s work as Boris starts out fairly simple, delivering about the performance you would expect from an actor playing an estranged family member, it is when he and Sammy get the chance to discuss art that his performance truly shines. Here, his character goes from being an odd outlier to a passionate, lovable, and tragic figure, with one scene in particular setting the tone not only for Sammy Fabelman’s life going forward, but speak deep to every aspiring artist in the audience.
As the night comes to an end, Boris winds down and sets up a pallet on the floor in Sammy’s room. With the two of them getting time alone with each other, their conversations on art and the lifestyle that it provides become more focused and specific. Sammy expresses his excitement for filmmaking and gets loads of insight on what his great-uncle’s experiences have been as an artist. Boris’s account starts with a true love and optimism for all that creativity has to offer. He recounts stories of his past that flesh out his character in ways that the audience couldn’t see coming, but the thing that really comes out of left field is the reality check that Boris hits Sammy with. Hirsch’s performance turns troubled as he warns Sammy of the pains that come with being an artist, be it moving away from everyone and everything that you know, having little money, losing love for the sake of art, and having to make choices between your own family and art. Hirsch as Boris doesn’t just command Sammy’s attention, he practically grips the audience by the throat and makes the prospect of an artist’s life about as unappealing as possible. We see this idea hit Sammy like a truck, yet it is clear that he understands immediately – any true artist, aspiring or thriving, cannot walk away from the medium that they are passionate for. It is our burden to bear.
Any and all artists that watch The Fabelmans are sure to feel a real pit in their stomachs during Boris’s speech. It’s an expertly written monologue from Spielberg and Tony Kushner that perfectly encapsulates the sacrifices that artists make, day in and day out. Creativity is a drug. Once somebody gets a taste of an art form, and they realize that they adore whatever that art form’s creative process looks like, it can never be “shut off.” Sure, interests can fade or come and go, but if you’re in the middle of a period of being hooked on, say, making music or writing short stories, you can’t just make that passion go away. Every artist has somebody in their life that takes the shape of Burt Fabelman, Sammy’s dad. Burt admires his son’s films and the passion that he has for making them, but in the end, he really only sees this as a hobby for Sammy. He supports his son’s movie making until it becomes clear that Sammy has greater aspirations within the medium, then he starts throwing the word “hobby” around and begins encouraging more conventional career paths. Sammy knows that he has no choice — his art has become his life, like it or not.
Making Sacrifices in the Name of Art
Those that view their art as just a hobby, something to do to wind down a bit or an enjoyable use of free time, are sure to understand the more optimistic bits of Boris’s speech. For those who are addicted to their artistic medium, hope to make it more than just a hobby, and shape their life around the mold that it provides, the scene isn’t just a testament to Hirsch’s dramatic chops, it’s heart-wrenching. Art, performance, and the creative process are all things will create roadblocks in life, roadblocks that those who are not as creatively inclined will not understand. Art requires travel, money, flexibility, and investments of all kinds — financial, emotional, and of time. If you are always looking to refill on your creative juices, repeatedly looking for the next story to write or the next production that you can act in, and that creative desire doesn’t fade, then you know that you will have to make sacrifices for it. Some sacrifices will be easy to make, others will be life altering, but either way, choices will have to be made between your personal life and your art. Uncle Boris is the perfect example of a life lived making difficult choices, all in the name of art.
Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is a must-see for artists everywhere. Aside from the fact that it’s a flat out masterpiece and is arguably Spielberg’s greatest film so far this century, it is simultaneously a touching and troubling exploration of family, as well as the tale of a budding artist who is destined for greatness. It is sure to both inspire artists and act as a cautionary tale of the difficult life that creativity provides. Some are like Sammy, bound to be one of the greats, while others will fit the mold of his mother Mitzi, quietly marvelous at their art while clashing with the surrounding conventions of every day life. Whether you’re a Sammy or a Mitzi, we’re all artists that can relate to Boris’ speech. Our art will drive us, give us life, reward us, and crush us every day, but it is the life that we are born to live.