“You’re finished, finished in show business.”
“Oh no, no, no, not that, not that!”
After the success of 1972’s Cabaret, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director, Bob Fosse, the longtime film and stage dancer and choreographer, took on a new and distinctly different challenge: he agreed to direct a biography of the life of controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. The film was simply entitled, Lenny, and would go on to be recognized as one of 1974’s best films. It received six Academy award nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography, but won none in a year enriched by The Godfather, Part II, Chinatown, and The Conversation.
MGM has now released the United Artists picture, Lenny, on DVD.
Lenny Bruce is a struggling young stand-up comic making the rounds of the Catskill circuit. He falls for a young stripper named Honey and eventually the two are married. After accidentally shocking his audience with some unintended off-colour material, he comes to realize that that may be a way to lift himself above the crowd of stand-up comics. Lenny soon begins to gain recognition and success for his routines that focus on controversial issues, blue material, and anti-establishment positions. With the success comes entry into the drug culture, however, and Lenny’s work is soon undermined by his growing drug dependence. Law enforcement authorities are taking note as well, and Lenny finds himself arrested for the nature of his material. The drugs and constant arrests begin to take their toll and Lenny faces bankruptcy with an even bleaker future ahead of him.
This is not a film that gives any clear sense of why Lenny Bruce gathered such a following in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some feel that he was really funny, but there’s little suggestion of that in the examples of his material that are shown. He was controversial obviously in the language that he used and the anti-establishment stance he took, yet it seems hard to believe that that alone could attract the mainstream following that it did. Perhaps just the fact that he offered something different from the standard routine of the time with its reliance on clean, if usually sexist, material was the key. That his act degenerated in his final years to drug-induced boredom and to endless diatribes about how his cases were mishandled in court but could still draw an audience is mystifying to me. I guess you had to be there. Clearly, he did pave the way for the acceptance of “blue” material in stand-up comedy and for that, comics such as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy and audiences who have seen their likes at their best owe him a profound debt of thanks.
That said, the portrait of Lenny Bruce that is presented in Lenny is a mesmerizing experience. Director Bob Fosse was a compatriot of Bruce’s and his film is a celebration of his friend’s life, warts and all. Lenny is structured in the form of a chronological recounting of Lenny Bruce’s career using reminiscences by his wife (principally), his mother, and his business manager, and it works very effectively. Nothing is papered over — from the cheating on his wife, to drug-taking, to run-ins with the police and with judges, to the times he cheated his audience, to bankruptcy, and to his final tragic yet pathetic end. Fosse has chosen to film in black and white, an uncommon choice in 1974, and the result is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of various shades of gray that reflects the smoke-filled nightclub scene and the darkening nature of Bruce’s life.
Clearly, the actor portraying Lenny Bruce is key to the film’s success and Fosse has been fortunate in this regard to have Dustin Hoffman deliver a simply masterful performance. Hoffman is at his best in the stage sequences. He simply inhabits the character to perfection, reveling in his delivery of Bruce’s material. As Lenny Bruce’s life darkens, there is an astonishing sequence that Hoffman makes totally believable when he appears on stage in a raincoat half stoned and proceeds to make a complete fool of himself, staggering about the stage and rambling incoherently to the disbelief of the audience. That Hoffman managed to lose out in the year’s Best Actor category to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto is one of Oscar’s many mysteries.
Backing up Hoffman is Valerie Perrine playing Honey Bruce, Lenny’s wife. It’s certainly the best and most important role that Perrine has had and she makes the most of it, displaying a fine range from the eager innocence of her early years as a stripper to the weary, life-worn woman of 20 years later. Perrine too was rewarded with an Oscar nomination, but lost out to Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
MGM gives us Lenny on DVD in a very fine 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Overall, the image is sharp without suffering from edge enhancement and is fairly free of nicks or scratches. During the nightclub sequences, there is evidence of grain and the image appears soft at times, but these are difficult scenes with the swirling smoke and the generally dark conditions and I suspect that they appear much as intended and as they would have theatrically 28 years ago. MGM is to be commended for its efforts. A modified full screen version is also included on the disc.
The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and does a fully satisfactory job of delivering this dialogue-driven film. (There is only a minor amount of background music, and that is also adequately presented by the mix.) Some hiss is evident in a couple of scenes, but it is not intrusive at all. A French mono sound track is also available and English, French and Spanish subtitling is provided.
This is one of MGM’s standard DVD releases, which is to say that the only supplement is an original theatrical trailer, which in this case appears to have been used for the British release.
Despite my personal lack of real appreciation for Lenny Bruce the artist, there’s no doubt that Lenny is a stunning portrait of his life. Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine are at the top of their game as Bruce and his wife respectively. Director Bob Fosse obviously brings a deeply felt sensibility to the subject. MGM gives us a fine-looking image transfer although the lack of supplementary material is disappointing as the subject matter cries out for it. Recommended.