Will The Real Lenny Bruce Please Stand-up?

Lenny

We’re deep into Day 2 of TCM’s Classic Film Fest, and one of today’s highlights is the screening of biopic Lenny at the Egyptian, starring Dustin Hoffman, directed by Bob Fosse. What makes this event so important is not just that this is one of Hoffman’s Oscar nominated performances, but that it doesn’t get the attention (or public screening opportunities) it deserves, and that this year’s TCM fest has offered Lenny up to help audiences rediscover it. Plus, we have a special appearance by Dustin Hoffman, interviewed by TCM’s “unofficial” number 3 man Alec Baldwin, to further remind us how great an event this fest is, both for it’s vast coverage of film, and the A-list talent it pulls in.

Simultaneously, Twilight Time has released Lenny on Blu-Ray, so that those who weren’t able to see the screening (which would be most of the country, btw), can enjoy this important film for themselves. Lenny may not be a completely accurate depiction of the events that led to the rise and fall of one of the world’s most important comedians and satirists, but it’s definitely a well-made film, with director Fosse moving away from what could be considered his “comfort zone,” (musicals and dance) even though the story is in and of itself firmly entrenched in the entertainment industry and even has shadings (later more fully realized) from Fosse’s days working strip joints (as seen in All That Jazz). In fact, as outlined in our own Kyle Turner’s piece, on All That Jazz, a thinly veiled autobiography of Fosse, there’s a whole segment covering the director’s difficulty in editing Lenny.

As in All That Jazz, Fosse seemed obsessed with show business, and its analogy to life, viewed through the distorted lens of those particular artists consumed with driving themselves to drink, drugs and numbing sex (both Lenny and All That Jazz). While Lenny makes a sobering argument that Bruce was his own worst enemy, it keenly brings attention not only to the ease with which the power of the microphone can corrupt, but that our freedom of speech is, even today, just a tenuous step away from complete dissolution.

Lenny

Based on the stage play by writer Julian Barry who also adapted the screenplay, Lenny follows the entertainer’s career from a mediocre borscht belt hack to “prophet for the beat generation.” Along the way, Bruce discovers the ability to say whatever he wants while MC-ing at strip joints where no one’s really paying attention, until his agent talks him into going back to the comedy clubs and (for the first time) coffee houses with his topical and anti-establishment material. As his star ascends, he struggles with the rewards of excess, joining orgies of sex and drugs, until his addiction to heroin takes over. Simultaneously, his continuous harassment by the law in almost every state in the country, both on obscenity charges and drug possession (the latter not mentioned in the film) wears the performer down. Never one to walk away from a fight, Bruce’s savings are sucked dry as he throws everything he can into his defense. While out on bail and awaiting sentencing for his most recent charge, he died on what one friend claimed was “an overdose of lawyers.”

Hoffman brings the same commitment and focus to Lenny as he does to all his work; and the scenes where he’s off stage are the most stirring and emotional. The one area that this reviewer feels he does not fully engage is in his depiction of Lenny Bruce as a stand-up. Here, his routines are more like Dustin Hoffman performing comedy; he fails to imitate or even haphazardly “inhabit” the style of Bruce. (This is, of course, an almost impossible “directive,” since what made Lenny Bruce so powerful was his unique style on stage that no one could replicate.) In fact, other than one routine played in court, the main thrust of Bruce’s style, his ability to attack comedy like a jazz musician, using staccato and improvisation, is never fully illustrated. No matter how well one thinks Hoffman does at mimicking Bruce, however, the conversation stops at the pivotal performance where Bruce goes on stage completely blitzed out of his mind. This is an impeccably produced, cringe-worthy scene, where in one extended take, Hoffman is able to reduce down Bruce’s paranoid, drug-fueled psychosis into a pitiful, cathartic rant. In fact, the entire scene is supposedly a word-for-word reenactment of this breakdown, taken from recordings. This is the show piece of the whole film, and most probably the reason for Hoffman’s well deserved Oscar nomination. Kudos to Fosse for never cutting to close-ups, or covering the scene at all, except for the one static wide-shot. This makes it all the more realistic and painfully; voyeuristic.

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Bruce’s self-destruction is aided by his marriage to Honey Harlow, well rendered by Valerie Perrine who won Best Actress at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of the well-meaning, but helplessly heroin addicted stripper. There’s no question the two are in love, but as Bruce himself jokes, “Lenny and Honey Bruce starring in “Bad For Each Other;” they’re just too toxic.

Shot in beautiful black& white by cinematographer Bruce Surtees (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Beverly Hills Cop) the whole film has an authentic, documentary feel. Lenny is a must-see for those interested in the story of one of the most influential and important stand-ups of the 20th century, as well as another entry into Dustin Hoffman’s impeccable canon, and not least of all, an example of the great director Bob Fosse’s accomplished style. He was sadly underused as a filmmaker.

Lenny is available as a very limited MOD through Screen Archives’ Twilight Time label and Shop TCM. Limit one per customer.

lenny bruce

About Wade Sheeler 152 Articles

Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he’ll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

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