Lenny Bruce often tops the lists of the “greatest standup comedians,” but I doubt that anyone today remembers who he is. If they were to listen to his material, they certainly would not be able to recognize why he was special. But he was the first who managed to gain a following for doing what every great comedian does. Bruce did not tell jokes, did not perform tricks, did not employ puns – he simply spoke the truth and connected with his audiences. Georgie Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Bill Hicks, and Eddie Murphy would not have ever been successful without Bruce’s influence. He also was the person who allowed other comedians (and everyone else) to speak without fear of repercussions from the society they were condemning.
Lenny (the film) manages to capture all of this about the comedian. It is gritty, profane, and it is also a masterful biopic. Most biographies are concerned about the facts surrounding a figure’s life, but do not answer the question why. Why should audiences care about any particular historical figure? Lenny seems just as interested in the man, and is determined to explore why Lenny Bruce was important.
Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), for those who do not know, was a comedian who achieved popularity for his frank language and his descriptions of sex. Problem was, it was still the 1950s, when everyone was acting as though they reproduced via mitosis. Bruce was frequently arrested for his performances and charged with obscenity. This only caused his notoriety to grow, but it also caused him a tremendous amount of pressure, which only encouraged his drug use. His wife Honey (Valerie Perrine) only encourages much of this behavior.
When I saw the opening credits, I was curious as to how the flashy direction of Bob Fosse would treat the material. Fosse would have been the last director I would have picked to bring the life of Lenny Bruce onto the screen. I know the script is based on a Broadway play, but even so, Fosse’s usual method of just throwing colorful but ill connected material onto the frame would not work.
But I was wrong, because Fosse does not use any of his normal techniques. The film is in black and white and features no slick choreography. To be frank, Bob Fosse had the deck stacked against him after I saw Cabaret. But this film made all of the right choices stylistically. It is in black and white because Bruce’s language and the nudity seem that much more significant. We almost understand why Bruce was considered to be controversial, even though we have heard practically every permutation of his act. It is that much more shocking when it is presented in the classical Hollywood idea. This may seem like a minor point, but it is a vital one; to a certain degree, it is how Tim Burton chose to shoot Ed Wood in black and white. Many people have two ideas about the 1950s; the truth and the idealized conservative view. Whenever anyone sees one view in the guise of another, it is that much more significant. Fosse seemingly understood this fact, which is why the film works.
Hoffman also helps the film. His performance is the second best aspect of the material (after the direction). Hoffman is seemingly just as nervous as Bruce undoubtedly was. Of course, Bruce (and Hoffman) managed to pretend otherwise. But Lenny Bruce was still a man. Hoffman played the role as such, and it helps the film intensely. He seems to be at his best when he is performing, but cannot understand the world beyond the stage. When Bruce is desperately trying to beg to perform his act in a courtroom, the only thing that anyone would see is a last ditch effort to be understood. Bruce never seems like a real human being, but he was elevated into that position. Every single minute of his adult life was to be a performing. Why is this important in relation to Hoffman? Because this is how he plays the man.
This film is about to expire on Netflix, but needs to be seen by as many people as possible. It completely changed my mind about one director, who apparently had more tricks up his sequin covered sleeved than met the eye. Additionally, it is a biopic about an important man which understood why it was important. The impact may be lessened with the passage of time (to most audiences) but it is still an important biopic whose technique has become the norm in Hollywood.