Lenny (Bob Fosse, 1974)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Lenny.

criterion logoBob Fosse’s first non-musical film confirmed his cinematic talents, creating a grim biopic of controversial stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce that is both heavily romanticized and harshly unsentimental.  Dustin Hoffman stars in this relentless depiction of Bruce’s battle with the Establishment authorities that condemned his stage act as obscene and the comedian’s downward spiral from countercultural vanguard to junkie burnout.  Supported by a Cannes-winning performance by Valerie Perrine as Bruce’s stripper wife, Bruce Surtees’ rich black and white cinematography, and Julian Barry’s adaptation of his own Broadway play, Fosse’s Lenny was a commercial and critical success that garnered six Academy Award nominations and eulogized the career of one of America’s great champions of free speech.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Scene-specific audio commentary featuring editor Alan Heim and Lenny Bruce’s daughter, Kitty Bruce
  • New interviews with Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Stanley Beck, Alan Heim, and Fosse biographer Sam Wasson
  • Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, Robert B. Weide’s 1998 documentary featuring narration by Robert De Niro
  • Video appreciation by comedian Marc Maron
  • New interview with Stand-Up! record label owner Dan Schlissel and lawyer Bart Torvi on Bruce legacy in comedy and obscenity law
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by filmmaker Damon Maulucci and Dick Schaap’s tribute to Bruce for Playboy Magazine.

Now that the Criterion Collection has entered the Bob Fosse business, we can only hope that it promises more titles in the Collection by this phenomenal artist.  For us, that next title should be Lenny (1974), Fosse’s portrait of one man’s self-destructive stand against the hypocrisy of the American Establishment and its silent majority.  Over a little less than 2 hours, Fosse tracks comedian Lenny Bruce’s troubled marriage to stripper Honey Harlow, their damaging struggles with infidelity and substance abuse, and the various obscenity charges and convictions that effectively ruined Bruce’s career and surely contributed to his death in 1966 by an accidental overdose.  Bruce’s life is somewhat idealized by Fosse, touching lightly on his divorce from Honey and skipping his over his get-rich con jobs, yet Lenny still acknowledges Bruce’s cruelties, usually by his infidelities and accusations, and failures, primarily by his on stage debacles fueled by either his drug abuse or his hubris (and sometimes both).  Adapted by Julian Barry from his own stage play, Lenny is grounded in two stunning performances by Dustin Hoffman as Bruce and Valerie Perrine as Honey.  Each traverse a complex landscape of adoration, resentment, denial, and self-pity with captivating efficiency and humanize characters perceived by many during their lives as degenerates, low-lives, junkies, and screw-ups.  Terry Gilliam observes in his commentary on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) that the junkie uses his own body to reflect society’s ills back at it.  Nearly 25 years earlier, Fosse demonstrated the same point with harrowing poignancy.

Lenny was Fosse’s first non-musical film, but he still managed to remain on the stage.  (More on Lenny Bruce, the performer, and the stage in a moment.)  What Fosse does abandon is the colorful, sparkling, spectacularly decorated world of the musical, replacing it with the realist style of the docudrama and the highly textured black and white cinematography of Bruce Surtees.  Lenny‘s narrative is fragmented and impressionistic, often moving at an accelerated pace and frequently driven by interviews with Honey, Bruce’s mother (Jan Miner), and his agent (Stanley Beck) reflecting on Bruce after his death.  As such, Bruce is naturally absent to reflect upon his own career, but Fosse uses the comedian’s stage performances as a window into the character’s psyche.  In his life, Bruce is behaving positionally in power-plays, self-medicating, and even performing schtick, but on stage Bruce is effectively engaging in soliloquy.  Early in his career, Bruce’s stage act is pandering and false, a desperate plea for popular acceptance and affirmation that is openly acknowledged by him as falling short.  When Bruce’s career takes off, Bruce’s satirical rants against Establishment values are his own, are genuinely believed, and are informed by his personal experiences with lecherous celebrities, disapproving friends and family, personal insecurities, and social oppression.  As the weight of the legal system fully comes down on Bruce, his stage act becomes a barrage of recited facts surrounding his various legal cases, describing Bruce’s suffocating obsession with this turmoil.  These moments contrast with later courtroom scenes where Bruce is reduced to an audience member watching witnesses and judges deliver their opinions from elevated positions (and without the flair and charm of the comedian) and who demand silence from Bruce, particularly where he is left representing himself and begging to perform his act in the false hope that he can bring himself to the level of the judge and share a true moment of connection and understanding.  Fosse and editor Alan Heim propel the film forward with great gusto, halting its pace to punctuate its most rending scenes, such as by the crushingly uncomfortable silence of Bruce’s pressured threesome between him, Honey and another woman or the long, static shot of a drug-addled Bruce fumbling through a haphazard routine.  Fosse enhances the docudrama realism of Lenny by maintaining the stage performance element which he was so familiar with, while at the same time stripping away its artifice, leaving his title character exposed and vulnerable under a proscenium arch that targets him rather than protects him.

Lenny was a critical and commercial success.  The film nabbed 6 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography) and Perrine won for Best Actress at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.  Revisiting Lenny today, we can’t help but see a kinship to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).  The troubled performers each exposed on stage, the strained relationships, the rich black and white cinematography, the descent into tragic self-parody, and the struggles with the law all connect Scorsese’s classic back to Lenny.  In fact, screenwriter Paul Schrader originally intended for LaMotta’s stage act to periodically interrupt the film’s narrative, much as the interviews in Lenny intervene on its story, however this approach was abandoned during Raging Bull‘s editing.  Perhaps it should also be noted that Scorsese followed up Raging Bull with The King of Comedy (1982), a film about a troubled would-be comedian of his own.  We must admit, we can’t place any acknowledged relationship between the two films, but fans of the Bull would be well-served to seek out Fosse’s antecedent bio-pic.

Lenny PosterThere is a line late in Lenny that perfectly encapsulates the film’s tensions.  Bruce, listing his various legal appeals to an audience of club patrons, shouts in frustration to a guest departing in the middle of his set, “These are the jokes!”  On one level, it is the cry of a performer out of touch with his audience.  On another, it is a confirmation on Bruce’s skewering of the hegemony of American conservatism – that it is the society that torments him which is laughable.  But what was once observational and involved a communal condition between him and his audience, has become personal and adversarial.  While the hypocrisy that Bruce commented on was once shared and winked at, it is now individually persecuting.  The culture Bruce talks about remains no less laughable, but it has become a lot less funny.

For a cover treatment to a potential Criterion edition of Lenny, we suggest this poster for the film with Bruce silhouetted by a spotlight.  It is intimate by his proximity to us and to the audience, and it is foreboding by his shadowed appearance.  It is a gorgeous image and one that would look good with a wacky “C” adorning it.

Credits:  We’ve obviously modeled some of our special features on Criterion’s edition of All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979), noting the involvement of Alan Heim as editor on both films and assuming a similar presence by him and Sam Wasson on this imagined edition of Lenny.  Cast interviews, Weide’s documentary, and Schaap’s tribute are all included for obvious reasons.  We felt some impressions on Bruce by an actual comedian was necessary and so we’ve proposed an appreciation by Marc Maron, a performer with a particular interest in Bruce and the Criterion Collection, having been a recent contributor to the Collection.  The interview with Schlissel and Torvi is inspired by a 2009 panel discussion given at The Turf Club in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and we’ve chosen filmmaker Damon Maulucci as an essay contributor having noted his moderated discussion on the film at Sacred Heart University earlier this year.

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