Lenny (1974)

Dir. Bob Fosse. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner

Lenny Bruce (Hoffman) is delivering his stand-up act, pulling from current events and the newspaper as is his wont. He’s intrigued by the discrepancy in pay for Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Las Vegas act ($60,000 salary) and the best-paid teachers in Nevada ($6,000). It’s “sick,” he tells his audience. Not long after, he reverses course into a more honest direction. I’m not about to donate my salary to those teachers either, he says. I’m a hustler. If you put money in front of me I’ll take it. There are a few moments like that in Lenny which are very successful. Some of them deal with his daughter, who he appears to genuinely care for and wants to take care of. In an early scene he shows his wife, Honey (Perrine), the black Cadillac they can afford because of an insurance payout. In a later one, squatting in a bathroom and squabbling with his lawyers, he makes it very clear that he does not want to continue appealing to higher courts, does not want to risk going to jail for any amount of time. The man born in Long Island as Leonard Schneider may talk a good game on stage about the words we don’t want to say, shouldn’t say, and get in trouble for saying. He pushes the boundary between free speech and obscenity as well as he knows how, and perhaps the greatest testament to the politics of Lenny of Lenny is that his stand-up would not be particularly transgressive today.

The movie is not shy about something awfully important: at heart this is a man with middle-class dreams. Everyone talks about “bread” in this movie in that particular New Yawker way, always thinking about money or the new car or the big house or finding a way to it. For Lenny, when it comes down to it, the fear of jail is coupled with the knowledge that his legal troubles have gotten him banned from the New York nightclubs where he makes said bread; the law is a threat to his livelihood, and without that spur it’s hard to imagine that he would so violently wave his arms against it. Make no mistake: Lenny Bruce is a martyr for free speech in this movie, but he’s not asking for a special cross because he’s unworthy of crucifixion in the way Socrates was crucified.

Lenny has more than a little Citizen Kane in it, which in turn is more than a little grandiose in practice. The tape recorders are put out, an unseen narrator murmurs questions on the other side of the camera, and we watch older, less-than-their-best individuals recount their tales of knowing Lenny: his wife Honey, his mother Sally (Miner), his agent Artie Silver (Stanley Beck). None of them are quite as worked over as Joseph Cotten in his old folks’ home, but the point was always for the film to have this retrospective aspect. (How often biopics overwork to convince us that the action is set in the past, as if we wouldn’t have any other clues.) Of the bunch, only Perrine excels in the interview format. She evinces a shyness early on contrasted vividly with her performance in a strip joint; it turns out the shyness probably has more to do with the many months she spent in jail for possession, the long years of drug addiction which turn her into gelatin about halfway through the picture. She is the one who gets to explain the “Rosebud” in Lenny Bruce’s life: it’s an overwhelming, endless desire to prove himself. (The “proving himself” aspect happens when it’s made clear that he bangs a nurse at the hospital where Honey is recovering from a huge car crash.) The movie begins with an absurd close-up of her mouth, so close that we can count all the fine hairs above and below her lips.

Perrine plays a difficult role well, in short, because Honey is all of the pieces of the traditional/stereotypical/reductive “messy woman” role. Over the course of the film, Honey is (deep breath) a stripper, a cheater, a drug addict, a money pit, an absent mother, a convict; Lenny’s career takes off when she’s in the penitentiary, and the movie at least has the guts to say that she’s the anchor around her husband’s neck. The movie drags when it spends too much time on what’s wrong with Honey, though, culminating in a scene where she, on whatever cocktail of drugs she’s got in her system, calls Lenny to ask him for money in the hopes that it’ll keep her out of jail. Possibly the issue with the drag there has less to do with Honey and more to do with the lengthy interlude to note Lenny and Honey’s drug history; I’ve written about this before, but movies where the protagonists are druggies and the plot delves deeply into their addictions tend to be deeply boring. This is especially true for someone like Honey, who is obliterated by heroin, and so we suffer through the clear sight of someone acting what it’s like to be stoned.

Where Lenny deserves a lot of credit is in the energy of the protagonist’s stand-up, which is sort of the point of the whole thing anyway. The film intercuts footage of a single late Lenny Bruce routine (helpfully pointed out by Hoffman’s beard) with many of the earlier scenes; the scene where Honey gets wise to the fact that Lenny “made it” with a nurse is chopped and tossed with Lenny’s bit about adultery, for example. True to the film’s perspective of the Blessed Lenny, patron saint of folks who want to say a certain eleven-letter Word in public, and martyr for the cause to boot, the stand-up routines are more pointed than funny. It’s an interesting choice, to say the least! There are, by my count, only three or four good jokes in his stand-up. Two of them are about Jesus; one is the famous line about thank God he was crucified so long ago, or schoolchildren would be wearing electric chairs around their necks. The other is a hilarious take on violence in media. I would never let my kids watch a violent movie like The King of Kings, he says, because then they’d learn to kill Christ when he came back. But the rest of it is demagogery, shouted oratory, provocation. The further it goes on, the less the film is about free speech and the more it is a how-to manual for Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, or whichever preachy lib hypocrisy siren you like best. This is where Lenny finds a role: truth in comedy, or at least in the bourgeois way that one can rely on comedy for truth. And it’s where he excels, down to the inherent flaws in his reasoning.

In one scene, he scopes out as many non-WASPs as he can in order to call them by the worst slurs he can find for them. The n-word is thrown around way more than I was ready for, though that’s one of about a dozen epithets he digs up. Now, here’s my point, he says after the room he’s gotten the room dead silent. If Kennedy would appoint a whole bunch of n-words to his Cabinet, and call them by that name, then the word would lose its power, and then, he finishes with a flourish, it wouldn’t make six-year-olds cry when people said it to them. The room goes nuts with applause. We get a long shot then, too, one of the rare ones in this picture which values the close-up above all else. The film wants us to see the applause, the effect that this comedic brinkmanship has on an audience receptive and ready for the message. What puzzles me about the scene is that it’s a transparently stupid argument, the sort of point which is made by someone who has heard the word fewer than a hundred times in his life and never aimed at him. How many more times would it need to be said in order to rid the word of its power? How many times had it already been said by Americans in the ’50s? How many times had it been said going into the mid-’70s? Clearly the word has not lost its power through the common usage thereof; it has been changed and reclaimed by the African-American communities of this country, but the film doesn’t have black people saying the word in mind when Lenny’s screaming into every recess of the nightclub. For a movie that has so much to say about free speech, one is disappointed it doesn’t understand a little more about language itself.


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