Back with a movie review finally! If I don’t start clearing out the multitude of movies I’ve recorded over the weeks I’m in trouble, my DVR is already 80% full so if I want more movies I need to work on my turn-over (two more weeks till summer!). Today’s film is the 1974 Bob Fosse directed biopic on comic Lenny Bruce. I know the basics on Bruce’s life (he said some dirty stuff right) and while the film isn’t an in-depth portrait on Bruce’s life, the work is still great. It’s a Fosse film so there’s a lot of style, and the director possibly heightened Bruce’s character to be more in line with himself. It’s not my favorite Fosse film but it’s a great biopic.
Comedian Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) starts out as a hack before turning into the voice of the 1960s movement with his crass words and satire which ended with him being arrested for obscenity and addicted to drugs. Matters aren’t helped with his wife, former stripper Honey (Valerie Perrine) who can’t control her own demons.
I’ve seen almost every movie directed by Broadway titan Bob Fosse (the exception being his adaptation of Sweet Charity) and they’re all my favorite movies. While Lenny doesn’t have the effervescence of Cabaret, it’s not nearly as dark and methodical as All That Jazz (my favorite of them all) or Star 80. The odd thing is, in seeing Lenny after all the others, I noticed how much this film is reminiscent of Fosse’s more autobiographical films. All That Jazz is a literal biography of Fosse’s life (with a startling performance from Roy Schieder) while Fosse said numerous times that he identified with murderer Paul Snider.
Both films hold similarities to Lenny in that they contain a male who is crippled by drug use, manipulative and controlling. All three male characters hurt the women they love, either physically or emotionally, and the women are all innocent or child-like. The keystone scene of Lenny involves him convincing his wife Honey to have a threesome against her will (there’s some debate about this). The scene itself is shot unsexily with closeups on body parts, obscuring the faces. Honey constantly looks at Lenny to get either approval, showing her fear at his rejection while Lenny is shot in shadow directing (much like Fosse himself). When it’s all over he blames his wife for cheating on him, “I didn’t have to do much talking [to convince her].” This could make Fosse himself seem like a jerk (and many biographies say he certainly wasn’t the best man), but Lenny almost constitutes a Fosse trilogy. Fosse even interjects himself literally into the film, interviewing the characters to give the film a documentary vibe.
The movie itself is focused on showing Bruce’s life, his comedy, and his wayward relationship with his wife. The film haunted Fosse later in life to the point that a major crux of All That Jazz is Fosse persona Joe Gideon (Schieder) worrying about finishing a film surrounding a crass comic. Fosse did have trouble completing this movie and worried about how it would be received. Lenny ended up getting nominated for Best Actor and Actress, Cinematography, Director, Picture and Screenplay (Godfather II took Best Picture that year). The film’s cutting and jumping, interspersed with Bruce’s comedy as an inner monologue, takes time to get used to. The story stays linear throughout but sometimes you just want to hear Bruce’s comedy. The film even opens with Bruce’s routine playing over the credits leaving the audience to focus on the words (one of Bruce’s main points in his comedy, the interest in words).
The film opens showing Bruce’s comedy routine as being cheesy and embarrassing, emphasizing cheap impressions and gags. Hoffman is just astounding in this movie as we see a natural progression throughout the films two-hour runtime. In these early scenes he’s earnest, and while he know’s he’s bombing he tries to keep the mood going. When he does start to gain fame and notoriety he just wants to be a voice with something to say. His later comedy routines are even more appropriate to today’s times (many have said Lenny Bruce was ahead of his time). Hoffman is in the skin of Bruce in these later comedy sequences touching on everything from feminism to marriage, and racial inequality. I’ll post the best comedy routine moment. Keep in mind Bruce was not afraid to drop some harsh words, so if you’re not a fan of racial slurs/curse words in general avoid:
The above video is great because it’s so awkward. You don’t know Bruce’s point when he starts spouting out these racial slurs, if it’s a joke or he’s serious till he adds the political slant to it by which the audience cheers. There’s another great comedy routine that YouTube doesn’t seem to have involving the distinction between a wife and a girlfriend. It plays juxtaposed with Bruce’s relationship with his wife who is a stripper. The routine mentions that once a girlfriend becomes a wife the husband doesn’t want the girlfriend to dress sexy even though its physical attributes like breasts that make a woman appealing. As a feminist I had to agree with the scenes in the movie, especially the interesting scene where Bruce mentions Jackie O trying to escape during JFK’s assassination. All these routines are applicable today and it’s fantastic that the movie gives us so many from discussions on sex to celebrity and the financial gap.
With these scenes Hoffman goes full-tilt and you like him in spite of the horrible way he treats people, especially his wife. The film shows him seducing a nurse while his wife is in the hospital with the allusion that they slept together. Honey merely says it stems from his need “to prove himself.” Valerie Perrine is just heart wrenching in this film. She’s beautiful, even in her darkest moments, with a sweet smile and long blonde hair. She’s reminiscent of Fosse characters like Dorothy Stratten (Star 80) and Kate Jagger (All That Jazz). Honey Bruce defends Lenny constantly throughout the film, excusing his bad behavior including his drug use, and blaming herself. There’s an innocent quality to her performance, she uses her sexuality with a giggle and doesn’t know of her own power. The only time she does raise her voice is when there’s talk of the custody dispute over their daughter Kitty, and even then she seems okay with it because she was doing drugs.
The film goes all the way through to Bruce’s trial for obscenity (where he was eventually pardoned posthumously) and the movie almost abruptly ends. We see Bruce in the dregs of addiction, being carried off-stage. The final image is of Bruce’s naked body, a crime scene photo, dead from a morphine overdose. Lenny is a typical “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” type story where you should know going in that fame will kill him. That doesn’t make the movie any less compelling and it’s easy to see why it was recognized come Oscar time. Fans should watch it purely for the performances from Hoffman and Perrine who carry the film. If you like it I can’t stress seeing the rest of Fosse’s films (he had a short time as a director). Lenny isn’t my favorite Fosse film but it’s amazing regardless.
We should have the giveaway sometime next week. Again, I’m working on finishing up the last of the banners for the upcoming tourney. If you haven’t voted in the poll yet, please do, I’ll be putting up a new one come Monday.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.