Lenny (1974)

“The point — the point is the suppression of words. Now, dig.”

Synopsis:
The life of controversial comic Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) is told in flashback by his ex-wife (Valerie Perrine), mother (Jan Miner), and agent (Stanley Beck).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that director “Bob Fosse’s seamy, sex-laced biography of controversial comic Lenny Bruce… centers on his difficult marriage to stripper Honey Harlowe (played with vulnerability by Valerie Perrine) and his troubles with policemen and judges for using supposedly obscene material in his nightclub act.” He notes that “Hoffman is very convincing in the title role, displaying Bruce’s quick mind, his obsessive nature…, and, ultimately, his utter helplessness and despair when he realizes he’ll never be able to express himself openly in his profession.” Peary argues that while Hoffman “is magnificent in those scenes where Bruce tries to talk sense to conservative judges”, becoming “like Don Quixote fighting windmills”, the “film fails because of Fosse’s self-conscious direction and because Julian Barry’s script, adapted from Barry’s play, forgets to include moments in which Bruce shows he has a real sense of humor.” He writes that while “one can understand Bruce’s seriousness in his later years”, “except for a scene with his relatives, he’s not funny in his early years — even on stage.” Peary asserts that the “film could use some laughter because it’s deadly long at 112 [minutes] and very depressing”, adding that “this would make an appropriate second feature to Raging Bull“.

I’m not quite in agreement with all of Peary’s points. While the film is indeed depressing, I don’t find it overlong, and wasn’t particularly struck by a dearth of funny routines. Bruce’s audience laughs plenty when they’re shocked by the language he uses, and that’s the primary focus of the film: Bruce’s controversial (!) belief that he should be allowed to use everyday profanity in his comedy. In fact, there’s ample humor as Bruce good-naturedly (albeit very pointedly) does his routine while cops line the walls, substituting “blah blah” for the actual swear words while still being completely understood by his audience; his point is extremely well taken. What I’m most disturbed by is Bruce’s treatment of Perrine, who’s simultaneously adored and demonized for her sexuality (what else is new?). With that said, Barry’s screenplay neatly shows how Bruce’s rightful indignation ultimately consumed his life; it’s sad seeing his obsession with his court cases taking over his routines (and, of course, seeing his drug-induced ramble in a final performance). There may have been many complicated reasons leading to Bruce’s premature death by overdose, but at least here we’re clearly shown how the mutually reinforcing demons of addiction and hopelessness played pivotal roles.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce
  • Valerie Perrine as Honey
  • Jan Miner as Lenny’s mom
  • Bruce Surtees’ cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful biopic.

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One Response to “Lenny (1974)”

  1. A once-must – for the subject matter, the leading performances, and Fosse’s direction.

    [Sidebar: A few years after the Bway production of the play, I was in a community theater production… in which I played several small parts. At one point, all I wore was a jock-strap – the closest I ever got to appearing nude in public. 😉 ]

    As per my post in ‘Film Junkie’ (fb):

    “Because talking about it makes you the worst person in the community.”

    ‘Lenny’ [link to film in comments]: Isn’t it… interesting… how this film opens the same way that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ did, one year later? Having just watched ‘Fosse / Verdon’ – and seeing this was available online – I thought I would post it. It’s actually a little difficult finding this film, at least at a popular price. Twilight Time released a limited edition of 3000 copies in blu-ray, which sold out. You can find the film at Amazon but (whether in blu-ray or DVD) it’s a little pricey. Funny how it seems to be somewhat in danger of becoming a forgotten film. I saw Cliff Gorman star as Lenny on Bway – and he was remarkable – but Dustin Hoffman’s work in the role is not to be underestimated. Neither is the film. (Valerie Perrine is also impressive, as is Jan Miner as Lenny’s mom.) Lenny Bruce stormed the world at such an odd point in time, pushing the envelope when too many didn’t want that envelope pushed. It drove him nuts, ruined him, and he died in disgrace. And all because people were uncomfortable talking about ‘dark things’ that people were familiar with anyway. It’s a valuable, underrated film.

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