Review: Lenny (Fosse, 1974)

Part of our “Top10Films: Dustin Hoffman” feature

Dir. Bob Fosse; screenplay by Julian Barry; starring Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner, Stanley Beck

Considered by many US-based critics as a film lacking the sort of anti-establishment relish that made its origin of study the darling of counter-culture 1950s and 1960s Americana, “Lenny” plays better in the United Kingdom where mainstream media is more open to the real meaning of the comedian’s ‘blah blah blah’ skit and other obscene eccentricities. Frequently, we see Hollywood actors, musicians, and comic stars appear on talk shows such as Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and The Graham Norton Show, looking aghast at the host’s use of the ‘F’ word, or more explicit allusions to sex, homosexuality, and drug use.

lenny dustin hoffman

It’s ironic that we Brits once lived under the ultra-conservative Video Recordings Act of 1984, sapping a generation of 1980s school kids of some good old gore and violence. America on the other hand was gladly allowing such horrifically harrowing abominations against human kind, such as Dustin Hoffman’s own “Straw Dogs”, to pass from household to household like the common cold. The degrading and disgusting rape of Susan George’s Amy by gun-wielding yokels was deemed too morally corrupting for British audiences yet passable for American ones. Indeed, the film was released with an ‘R’ rating in the U.S. meaning children could freely watch the film in theatres if accompanied by an adult.

America’s relatively open policy on screen violence, especially when considered alongside Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”, is undeniably a result of the country’s will to empower its people with the ability to defend themselves with brute force if necessary. Charlton Heston and his shotgun-happy cronies would be quite happy to see Straw Dogs’ message of vigilante retribution as the answer to such female violation. But of course “Straw Dogs” isn’t necessarily advocating violence, it depends on your interpretation of the subtext. Does Amy eventually enjoy the forced sex act or does she simply stop resisting under circumstances she knows she cannot regain control of? Is Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner the real villain of the piece or is he justified in defending himself, his wife, and his home with such extreme measures?

The point is, and it’s one Lenny Bruce makes in Fosse’s film about the late comic, that violence like other elements of society’s ills, is a common part of the media-saturated world he inhabits. Violence has become second nature, an accepted form of entertainment and satisfaction. Yet, he tells us, watching a film with graphic depictions of sex is more gratifying to him. What Lenny is telling his audience, with unflinching directness, is that he can tell you how he would kill his wife but he can’t tell you how he would make love to her.

“Lenny’” isn’t a perfect movie and what possibly works against it is the stellar production team not quite living up to billing. Yet, Lenny Bruce wasn’t a perfect man, and while the film tells us a rather hackneyed tale of the Jewish comedian’s rise from nothing to stardom and back again, it does go about its straight-forward plot with the post-modern styling of pseudo-documentary and the frequently psychedelic and hazy-eyed, early-morning fuzziness of black and white film stock.

It’s also blessed with Dustin Hoffman’s brilliant portrayal of Bruce and Valerie Perrine’s Oscar-nominated performance as wife and muse Honey Bruce. Hoffman embodies Bruce with an almost obsessive attention to detail – he would spend days listening to and watching Bruce’s performances to get the nuances and delivery of speech just right, often watching himself in a mirror during practice – and his effort pays off. Just sample the wonderful moment as Bruce enters his latter-career demise, Fosse positioning his camera at the back of a fervent audience anticipating Bruce’s next on-stage arrest amid another flurry into the obscene. With no cuts, Hoffman takes to the stage under the duress of some mind-altering drug he and Honey have been over-indulging in minutes prior. He appears from behind a curtain clad in a beige raincoat that drops to the knee. He wears no shoes only a forlorn sock on one foot. His speech stumbles, his shtick appears broken and confused. The audience don’t know how to react but those that do laugh do so out of an awkward necessity (or maybe out of politeness) rather than at anything profound or amusing in Bruce’s confused diatribe. He laments about King Kong’s penchant for tall buildings and airplanes before losing track. He forgets his next line before remembering why he walked out in a raincoat. He tells the audience it’s just in case he gets arrested on stage again, he’s ready to leave. There’s no explanation for the lack of footwear, however. We watch transfixed to Bruce’s self-destruction, beautifully portrayed by Fosse’s unforgiving, unmoving camera and Hoffman’s precise and painfully authentic performance.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    I’d love to be able to get a hold of this movie.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    I think the DVD is fairly cheap these days. I know I picked it up in the UK for about £3.

  3. Avatar
    mark Reply

    “Charlton Heston and his shotgun-happy cronies would be quite happy to see Straw Dogs’ message of vigilante retribution as the answer to such female violation.”

    On the subject of female violation, there’s an interesting episode about one third of the way through Norman Mailer’s sprawling CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost when the story’s three main protagonists go to see Bruce circa the late 1950s. One of them, Kitteridge, is heavily pregnant.

    During his routine Bruce gets stuck into Christianity.

    “Now that we’re on the subject, let’s get to the big lie. What, you never shtupped a guy? Come on Mary, not even one stud? Not one leaky drop got in? It was a what-do-you-call-it? A what? An immaculate conception? Well, knock off, Mary. I’m not blind and dumb. I don’t buy stories that stupid.”

    At this point Kitteridge gets up and takes a step towards the stage, intent on “smaking his filthy mouth”, before being escorted out the door by her husband and the narrator.

    “Do you know,” she later says, “I thought if I could beat that dreadful man with my handbag,I would knock something back into place.”

    Forgive this ramble, but after having read this review, I do find it interesting that a woman who is married to the dastardly CIA would take such umbrage at Bruce’s schtick.

    Whether she’s a closet feminist or not, one thing’s for certain – good thing they didn’t go and see Staw Dogs.

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