Lenny, Bob Fosse’s 1974 biopic of Lenny Bruce starring Dustin Hoffman as the groundbreaking comedian occupies a strange space in the filmography of both director and star. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s almost like the movie doesn’t exist anymore. Think about it, when you read or hear about film fans and critics talking about the greatest works of Fosse and Hoffman, how often does Lenny come up? I can say personally that I have never had a single conversation with any of my film friends where Lenny has come up in context with the careers of Fosse and/or Hoffman.
This is incredibly puzzling on multiple levels. The film received excellent notices from critics when it was released in November of ’74, had a solid run at the box office (adjusted for inflation, the film made the equivalent of $68 million in 2020 dollars), and received six Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress–Valerie Perrine, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography). While Lenny went home empty-handed on Oscar night, the film was held in high regard, was well seen, and was about a significant character in American history.
When I sat down to view it again for the first time in probably twenty years, I wondered how the film had aged. Maybe critics and buffs moved on from the film because it doesn’t hold up. Over the next one hour and fifty-three minutes I became even more perplexed by the film’s constant omission from discussions about the best films of the ’70s, because as the film closes, it became quite clear to me that not only was this film great by the golden auteur standards of the decade that birthed it, but it is vibrantly relevant to the times we currently live in.
Let’s just start out with how beautiful the movie is to look at. The black and white cinematography by Bruce Surtees is so silvery and inky black, it looks like the film was shot through a fresh minted half dollar held up against a starless midnight sky. The night club scenes are so strikingly lit and framed that you could freeze-frame just about any moment and feel like you were looking at a photo from an exquisitely curated coffee-table book capturing the jazz scene of the ’50s and ’60s.
Fosse brilliantly captures the vibe and feel of the time. There are sequences in the film that seem to owe more than a little to Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic, Breathless. The way the camera moves, the extreme close-ups, and the crackling energy of the mise en scène all owe a debt to Godard. Despite having one of the biggest movie stars in the world at its center, Lenny blurs the line between drama and documentary by using a series of interviews with Perrine (as Bruce’s troubled wife, Honey), Jan Minor (who plays Bruce’s mother and is a near dead-ringer for Frances McDormand), and Stanley Beck (as Bruce’s agent) to frame the film. The deeper you get into Lenny, the less like a film it seems to be. It’s more of a…happening. It’s exhilarating to watch a filmmaker take such chances as Fosse does here. There is nothing straightforward about his take. Fosse eschews conventional biopic tropes and instead tells the story of the doomed comedian through a series of non-linear vignettes that somehow add up to a greater whole than the sum of its parts.
And then there is Hoffman’s performance, which I am convinced is the best of his esteemed career. It’s not enough that Hoffman had to capture the very particular energy and personality of the controversial comedian, he also had to match his timing onstage. If Hoffman were to get every other thing right about Bruce and not be able to nail the delivery of the jokes his performance would have been a disaster. To put it simply, he has to be funny. He HAS to be. You can’t just turn a gifted actor into a stand-up comedian (see Tom Hanks and Sally Field in Punchline if you don’t believe me–or better yet, don’t), but Hoffman achieves something beyond acting here. He’s working at an alchemic level. He’s not acting, he’s channeling. At the end of Lenny, it’s nearly impossible to determine where Hoffman ends and Bruce begins. More than that, it hardly seems to matter.
Valerie Perrine is nearly Hoffman’s equal as the showgirl, Honey Harlow, who Bruce marries after declaring her a “Shiksa goddess.” Their relationship is fraught with drug abuse, legal troubles, and self-destructive behavior. As Homey, Perrine goes toe-to-toe with peak-level Hoffman and gives as good as she gets. If you only know Perrine as Eve Teschmacher from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, you are in for a revelation. It’s fair to say that she provides the broken heart of this ultimately tragic film, and she positively aches with sadness in her every moment onscreen.
As I mentioned before, it’s mystifying to me how a film with so much great bounty being displayed onscreen has been so forgotten. In the times we live in, Lenny is a timely and vibrant film to revisit. Like many comics of his era, Bruce started out as a hacky, vaudeville influenced comedian, telling corny jokes and doing impressions. But like George Carlin and Richard Pryor (both of whom also played it safe out of the gate), it’s only when he digs deep inside and starts to pour out his own unique point of view, and lay himself bare onstage that he comes into his own. He paid one hell of a price for it. Bruce was arrested multiple times for “obscenity” due to the frank and (for the times) he lived in) graphic nature of his act. Nothing was off limits. Race, sex, and dirty words were all strewn across the nightclub floor. Bruce tested the limits of free speech like no comic before him. He wasn’t just a comedian, he was a revolutionary.
There is a sequence in the film that is just amazing to see and impossible to believe would survive in our current day and age. As Bruce, Hoffman unleashes a series of racial epithets that hit just about every demographic you could think of. At first, many in the crowd are uneasy, but then they realize the brilliance of what Bruce is doing–he’s pointing out that the suppression of the word is what gives it it’s power. It is an electric moment, full of discomfort, danger, and finally, a freedom of thought that makes you reconsider the very nature of our language. How many movies do that?
The film doubles down on that motif later when Bruce removes all the “offensive” words from his act and replaces them with “blah.” It’s a hysterical bit that isn’t just funny, but as Bruce says from the stage (with cops looking on, ready to arrest him), “this is the dirtiest show I’ve ever done. Why? Because what people fill in the “blah” blanks with is actually dirtier than the words he would have actually used.
As Bruce takes on the standards of decency and one arrest leads to another, he begins to unravel, to the point where many of his later performances were him simply reading from and critiquing his court transcripts as the crowd looks on, shifting in their seats, waiting for the jokes to start. The pressure of being under constant risk gets to him, and after being sentenced to a four-month sentence for “obscenity,” Bruce’s naked body is found in his Hollywood home, dead from a morphine overdose.
Lenny makes the argument that drug abuse, and even his own tendency towards self-destruction, aren’t what killed him. What Fosse’s extraordinary film seems to be stating is that it was an authoritarian desire to cancel a human being for speaking freely that did Lenny Bruce in. Not only is it hard to argue against that perspective, it’s also not difficult to look around and see that same scenario playing out with regularity in our current day. The difference is the cancellation isn’t always coming from above, from the government. No. Too often, it’s coming from so-called “regular people” on social media.
As I was watching Hoffman’s mesmerizing take on Bruce, it occurred to me…could Lenny Bruce survive today’s (often) overly woke, safe place, cancellation culture society we live in? I honestly don’t know. I look at the last ten years or so of stand-up comedy and wonder. While there are many funny comedians, so many play it relatively safe. Comedians like John Mullaney and Jim Gaffigan are certainly funny, but who out there is breaking new ground? Who is bold enough to risk offending someone? Anyone? There was a period of time when comedians were an essential driving force in our culture. Can one say that’s the case now? Sure, we still have Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Sarah Silverman, but it feels to me like they got in just under the wire and are only one viral mistake away from being ushered off the stage.
The question Bob Fosse’s masterful film seems to be asking is, “what is our freedom of speech worth?” The answer the film gives is everything. It’s worth everything.