By Philip Schweier
Lenny (1974) is a tragic movie on many levels, and difficult to get into if you come to it expecting the usual straight-forward method of film-making. It is an adaptation of the Broadway stage play based on the life of controversial stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce. Perhaps the film’s producers believed the best person to direct a film based on a stage play was someone accustomed to directing for the stage; in this case, Bob Fosse.
The story is presented two ways. Part of it depicts a series of events relating to the life of Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), beginning with his meeting and subsequent marriage to stripper Honey Harlowe (Valerie Perrine) in 1951. It chronicles the shared ups and downs of their life together, focusing primarily on Bruce’s career as a struggling comedian and Honey’s eventual battle with drug abuse.
Bruce and Honey eventually separate, and Bruce’s career begins to mature into a series of social observations and commentary, always laced with profanity that draws the ire of the authorities. He is brought up on obscenity charges and in danger of going to jail, an idea that fills him with terror. This fear becomes fuel for an impassioned plea with the judge, and is in my opinion Hoffman’s best scene, justifying his Academy Award nomination.
The other portion of the movie is a series of documentary-style interviews with
Perrine, Jan Miner, who played Bruce’s mother, Sally (Miner is recognizable as Madge the manicurist to millions of couch potatoes who grew up watching her Palmolive commercials), and Stanley Beck as Bruce’s agent, Artie Silver. Fosse himself plays the off-camera interviewer.
These interviews feature the actors in character, but seemingly out of costume and in settings that convey a very natural atmosphere, and this is one of the more successful aspects of the film. It allows each performer to perform, to act, unencumbered by wardrobe, make-up and a studio setting.
Where the movie may fail is that it would be a natural assumption for a film about a stand-up comedian to be funny, but it isn’t. Not even close. Perhaps in his heyday, Bruce was funny, but that was based on shock value. Today, in a post-George Carlin/Richard Pryor world, there is nothing shocking or funny about his material presented in the movie.
The strength of Bruce’s material was not in whether or not it was funny, but it was touchstone during a greater social awakening. Beat poets had written about drugs, Hugh Hefner had moved nude photography out of seedy back rooms and artists such as Jackson Pollock were able create paintings that weren’t pictures of something.
One bit that stands out is when Bruce over-uses the dreaded “N” word, as well as a number of other racial slurs. Naturally, it’s offensive and shocking at first, but as it continues to be said, he makes it clear that it eventually loses all meaning, much like “Have a nice day,” or “How about this weather?”
Bruce did with comedy what a jazz musician does with musical. Much of it was improvisational, yet built upon a verbal commentary of politics, authority, education and a host of other socially relevant subjects. His legacy is the controversy he created and the doors he kicked open for comedians such as Carlin and Pryor.
Lenny conveys that, but the audience has to pay close attention to a film that in many instances becomes a challenge to follow. It chooses not to spoon-feed the story to the audience, instead expecting the audience to be willing to do half the work. As such, it makes for a successful art house movie, befitting its subject matter without offending mainstream