dir: Bob Fosse
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The film is not about Lenny Kravitz; it’s not about Lenny from The Simpsons. It is about the Lenny who lords over all other Lennys; the Lenny who took on the Establishment and lost. Lenny Bruce was doing his part for free speech and revealing American society’s hypocrisy back when the majority of American comics were still doing mother in law jokes and that gag about “I just flew in from Chicago, and boy are my arms tired”.
Lenny was swearing on stage at a time when saying the word ‘cocksucker’ in public was a jailable offence. He was tearing strips off the government for its involvement in Vietnam, and the double standards of a Puritanical nation that celebrated violence but went berserk over nudity and sex before it was cool or safe. He was working without a net, and paid the price for it.
This biopic beautifully captures the mercurial essence, the sacred fire that made Lenny Bruce so important in his time and so crucial to those who would follow. Dustin Hoffman, an actor who usually stands out most clearly in any role by reminding you what a ham Dustin Hoffman is, subsumes himself in the role so that you forget you’re watching one of Hollywood’s most recognisable actors. As well, this being the 70s, Hoffman puts in a powerhouse performance that almost makes up for the coasting he’s down for the last couple of decades.
If you know nothing about Bruce, it’s a great introduction. If you’re lucky enough to have heard some of his performances or read his hilarious autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, you’d see that the film hews closely to Bruce’s actual life and performances, in some cases replicating them almost verbatim. Whilst Hoffman carries and embodies the film with his performance, the other crucial role belongs to Valerie Perrine as Bruce’s wife Honey, who puts in sterling work as well. Their scenes together have an ease and chemistry that enhances the believability of their relationship, and gives the film its backbone.
Bruce’s rise and fall of course has to be encompassed over the duration of such a biopic, but it is done in a way that avoids the generic signposts of most biopics that clamour for Oscars each year. The film’s structure is non-linear, jumping backwards and forwards in time, and uses interviews with the people in Lenny’s life as a framing device. It works well, and enhances the narrative, which is what you want in something as artificial as a framing device.
Honey especially comes across even more naturally during the interview scenes as if she really just giving a unhurried, relaxed response to an interviewer. She has a stack of good scenes, not least of which is her introduction to us on stage as a very talented stripper, as well as a phone conversation which is particularly strong. We come to understand through watching them that they shared a lot of love, but shared a lot of demons as well.
In all the interviews, shots of reel-to-reel recording equipment are shown, which parallels the use of tape in the nastier moments of Lenny’s life as the authorities start to target him.
Bob Fosse, best known for musicals like Cabaret and All That Jazz really went for broke on this one, successfully adapting Julian Barry’s play and giving it a vibrant, sharp edge that never flags for the film’s duration. The choice of black and white works very well, with the excellent cinematography enhancing the historical feel and the predominately nightclub environment Bruce lived in and for.
Lenny follows the path from strip club spruiker, to Borscht Belt comedy mediocrity to counterculture hero, to broken fanatic, with self-destructive passion and absolute commitment. The decline is anything but gradual, and it is genuinely painful to watch the broken man he becomes. There is a long, continuous shot of one of Lenny’s last performances where Hoffman captures just how out of it and beyond salvation he truly was. By the end there was nothing funny about his performances, where comedy had been abandoned and in its place Bruce would rant and read out court transcripts from his many obscenity trials.
The decline is not airbrushed or minimised, nor is Bruce’s drug use, nor his slutty ways (which is appreciated, since Bruce himself lied in his own autobiog about the drug use and many other aspects of his life, yet was brutally honest about others). But that shouldn’t be taken to mean that the film is a relentless downward spiral. It’s bracingly funny and engaging, and gives a real sense of the genius Bruce had access to, and how of his time he was. Comedians these days can say practically whatever they want without fear of reprisal. Bruce was attacking every sacred cow, every institution, trying to desperately make people see the world as it was, not how they wanted it to be. His pathetic end underlines the brief but powerful metaphor about the ‘light that burns twice as bright burning half as long’, and gives it added poignancy in the context of the film.
And had he not ended up as he did (and lived long enough to become a regular cast member of some diabolical sitcom as the ‘crazy’ but lovable grandfather), you get the sense that someone else would have had to pay the price. You get the sense from the film, whether it’s accurate or not I’ll never know, and from the many people who pay tribute to him, that he fought and lost these battles so that others wouldn’t have to. He was the first with the guts to take on the Establishment in a forcefully satirical and human way, obliging Them to crush him, thus inspiring others to take up the cause for civil and free speech rights in his memory. They owe him a lot.
If you’re a fan of smutty comedians like those that followed him (Richard Pryor, George Carlin etc), then you owe him too. The least you could do is make your penance by watching the living, breathing, vital epitaph that is this film.
10 times Lenny Bruce died for somebody’s sins but not mine out of 10
""Fuck you." Never understood that insult, because fucking someone is actually really pleasant. If we're trying to be mean, we should say "unfuck you!"" - Lenny