Lenny Bruce was an American stand-up comedian renowned for his open, free-style and critical form of comedy, which had him arrested and put on trial on several occasions in his lifetime. Active during the late 40s, 50s, and 60s, Bruce is seen as a trailblazer who paved the way for future outspoken comedians and is hailed in the United States as a legend and an icon for freedom of speech. None of these things are too evident in Lenny, Bob Fosse’s biopic, which seems to follow its own creative agenda.
Fosse is best-known as a director of lavish musical productions – one of which, All That Jazz, would be inspired by the director’s own experiences during the intense work of post-production on this very same film. Fosse ambitiously employs a cinema verité type of filmmaking. Lenny’s life is re-imagined through fiction, intercut with posthumously staged interviews with the people who knew him (played by actors, of course), and a lengthy stand-up comedy session (with Bruce played by Dustin Hoffman). It is also shot in grainy black-and-white, with handheld cinematography and sharp jump cuts.
There truly is an aura of ambition about the project. It comes as no surprise to find that Fosse was inspired by Citizen Kane for the making of this film, although it would be more appropriate to seek references with Orson Welles’ final masterpiece F for Fake, which was released one year prior to Lenny. But even the quasi-documentary stylings are used in a flamboyant and eccentric way.
Though the film deals with some primary personal issues, it doesn’t really aim to understand the origins of Fosse’s inspiration for his innovative form of comedy. This is an honest approach we should be thankful for. What Fosse truly seems to be interested in is how Bruce made stand-up comedy cool. When we first meet him, we see him emulating an outdated form of comedy through appallingly bad segments at strip clubs, where he is mostly ignored. We then see him grow into a man who rants and raves about sex on stage. He goes from being marginal to being right at the centre of attention. More so, he is a central figure in the wild years of bebop, which constantly plays in the background, underlining all action on the screen, and the images of Bruce’s life of sex, drugs, and general debauchery.
Bruce is played by Dustin Hoffman, in arguably one of his greatest performances. Rather than impersonating the comic, Hoffman draws on his own personality traits and comedic timing to create his own version of Lenny Bruce. This is appropriate also because, despite being a film about a comic, Lenny is not a funny movie. It is sometimes fun, eccentric and alive but never funny – nor should it be. Even the monologue, brilliantly executed by Hoffman, is intercut for dramatic emphasis, or to break up the tension of a preceding scene, or to gel one sequence with another. In other words, for the hearty laughs, one is re-directed to the records Bruce made throughout his career.
There aren’t many biopics like Lenny. If the film had been directed by someone else, such as Oliver Stone, it may have stood as a self-righteous work uncovering the truth about Lenny Bruce. By doing something other than that – by drawing from the feelings of its time, the power, and energy of his monologues and the various tools that cinema as an artform has at its disposal, it successfully takes a snapshot of the essence of the many whose story it reimagines – which is infinitely more interesting. – ★★★★★
LENNY || 1974, USA || Biopic || Directed by – Bob Fosse / Produced by – Marvin Worth / Written by – Julian Barry / Cinematography – Bruce Surtees / Edited by – Alan Heim / Music by – Ralph Burns / Starring – Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine / Running time: 111 mins.