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Lenny – 1974
Bob Fosse

Julian Barry (play)
Julian Barry (screenplay)

Robert Greenhut associate producer
David V. Picker executive producer
Marvin Worth producer

Dustin Hoffman – Lenny Bruce
Valerie Perrine – Honey Bruce
Jan Miner – Sally Marr
Stanley Beck – Artie Silver
Frankie Man – Baltimore Comic
Rashel Novikoff – Aunt Mema
Gary Morton – Sherman Hart
Guy Rennie – Jack Goldstein
Michele Yonge – Nurse
Kathryn Witt – Girl (as Kathie Witt)
Monroe Myers – Hawaiin Judge
John DiSanti – John Santi

Review by Jack Gattanella

As hard hitting as drama/comedies can get; a high-point for Hoffman and Fosse
For someone who had directed mostly (if not almost all) musicals throughout his career, and indeed made his name on Broadway before winning his Oscar for Cabaret (beating out Coppola for the Godfather no less), Bob Fosse was the last person I would figure directed a film about the iconoclast comedian Lenny Bruce.

If I hadn’t known it was him directing it, I would’ve thought someone from France had been given the controls on the script to make it into new. But ‘Lenny’ was indeed a Broadway play by Julian Barry, and here he makes it into something that works extremely well cinematically, and at the same time has that appeal of the theater, of that rush that comes from seeing someone like Fosse direct or Bruce on stage. It’s a script that fiddles with the time-line of a man from mid-twenties to (tragic) death with interviews after the fact, and for anyone who knows the name and work of Lenny Bruce would do well to see this ‘version’ of his life.

As usual, the contribution of Dustin Hoffman to the film’s success is incalculable. I have seen some footage of Bruce doing his comedy act through the searing documentary Swear to tell the Truth, but even if you haven’t seen any footage of Bruce’s act (which I’m sure most who were born in my time have not) you can put total belief in Hoffman’s portrayal. One of the tenets of Bruce’s life and career was that he would be truthful to himself, or at least would have that urge to find the truth early on (during his pre-beat years of the 50’s) and then full-blown in the late 50’s and especially early 60’s. Hoffman, therefore, is very astute in playing this role, how he could find that sense of total absurdity under all the BS, always questioning. And yet, he was also a likely a man with his share of flaws, and a good chunk of the film is about the relationship between him and Honey, his girlfriend-turned-wife. These scenes show Hoffman in a different key than he plays him in the stand-up scenes, and it’s terrific.

And also, going back to Fosse, the style is another big factor. The cutting is often startling, skipping along to that jazzy beat that is laid onto the soundtrack (I loved one scene where they show a early 50’s party at a ‘pad’, records being played, grass being rolled, Bruce falling head over heels in a quiet way), and then with the comedy clips especially, we get the best and the worst of what Bruce had to offer, his peak in pointing out things with risqu abandon (and ended up getting him in ridiculous trouble), and downfall into drugs and depression. Every step of the way, it seems, Fosse is keeping up with Hoffman’s vitality in this character of Bruce, and while the film provides some laughs, it also works as a serious treatise on what it means to try and have free speech in this country.

But the message Bruce wanted to try and get through to the public and to the courts is not what one should focus on completely, and if the film did it would’ve been a weaker effort. It’s strongest as it merges with a full-on character study, as Hoffman and the supporting players (the actress playing Honey Bruce is also very good) put on a certain image of a time and place.

One of the best films of 1974.

Lenny (1974)

Review by Wayne Malin

Depressing but fascinating,
The rise and fall of comic Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman). Bruce was one of the first comedians to use swearing in his act and was actually taken to court over it. The movie also chronicles his marriage to stripper Honey Harlow (Valerie Perrine).

Bob Fosse was a strange choice to direct this–he had only done two musicals before (“Sweet Charity” and “Cabaret”), but “Cabaret” was such a huge hit I guess he could pick and choose what he wanted. He shoots it in black and white and uses a documentary style approach by interviewing Bruces wife, mother and agent and then flashing to those scenes. It does work but the film is extremely depressing. The black and white is very stark and gives the film a cold look and feeling. Also, I found nothing funny in Hoffman doing Bruce’s routines. It’s not that he’s bad (he’s actually very good), but the tone of the film is not humorous.

As I said, Hoffman is good but Perrine is spectacular. She gives a very strong, nuanced performance. Also, she does an extremely erotic strip tease at the beginning of the film and holds her own in a (mild) lesbian scene.

It’s worth catching but you’ll probably be depressed by the end. If this film weren’t such a downer it would probably be better known.

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70s Films

A tour through the great and not so great films of the seventies The seventies saw a huge change in styles and genres from the advent of the slasher horror movies like Halloween and the blockbuster summers films started by Jaws. More...

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