Whenever I’ve seen a Bob Fosse directed film, I’m always amazed that his career was largely based on the stage (as performer or director). When stage directors have moved to film the tendency has been to not adapt to the avenues and openings and cinema provides and fall back on their stage background. That’s not to say the films they’re incapable of making good films but they tend to be on the stodgy and rather un-cinematic side.
But Fosse was a different story. What stands out about him as a film director is that he had a style that was completely at ease with the film format. He had an innate ability to use camera placement and editing to create sustained dramatic impact. Even when his films tended to be overwrought one was always enthralled by the technical mastery on display.
And such is the case with ‘Lenny’, his 1974 biopic of the controversial and groundbreaking stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce (played by Dustin Hoffman). On just about every level it is an exceptional film.
The film is constructed in a pseudo-documentary style, with Bruce’s mother, ex-wife and manager all interviewed in the present day (i.e. 1974) about Lenny Bruce, but with the film largely made up of a chronological depiction of Bruce’s rise and fall.
The film begins in the early 1950s where Bruce is a hack comic, doing lame jokes and impersonations. On the personal front, he woos and marries a beautiful stripper named Honey (Valerie Perrine) but their relationship falls apart due to personality weaknesses on both sides. Then Bruce transforms his act into a straight-talking, confrontational comedian exposing the hypocrisies of the day. His popularity takes off but his style sees him in a battle with the police and legal system, and there’s only going to be one winner from that.
There are many outstanding features to this film, one of them being Bruce Surtees’ black and white cinematography. In its sharpness it captures the intimate atmosphere of the nightclub scene and makes you feel like you’re there.
The performances are also excellent. While mysteriously this role has been somewhat forgotten in the context of his career, Hoffman’s performance as Bruce is amongst his best work. Indeed, he is so good that you completely forget it’s Hoffman and assume he is Bruce. A scene towards the end when Bruce is desperately begging a judge to give him a chance to plead his case is stunning in its effectiveness, thanks largely to Hoffman’s work.
But best of all is the direction of Fosse which is taut, sharp and unsentimental, without the overwrought self-indulgence that was on display in ‘All that Jazz’. Not a single minute feels wasted. A great example of his skilled technique is a backstage drug-fuelled party scene at a nightclub which – entirely through a montage of edits and judiciously-placed shots – convincingly conveys what it was like to be in such an electrified but dangerous environment filled with extreme highs and lows.
But above all else for the film to work, it has to be convincing portrait of Bruce the man, and this is done with great success. One of the secrets to this success is that the film doesn’t overtly focus on the period when Bruce was in the public eye; indeed the majority of the film is spent on his early career struggles and troubled marriage. While Bruce isn’t interviewed like his wife/mother/agent are, the film perceptively treats his freewheeling stand-up monologues as effectively his interviews because they provide such a great insight into his mindset.
This, in addition to the excellent work of Fosse and Hoffman, provides a memorable characterisation. When the police begin arresting him, initially he enjoys the notoriety and challenge of taking the legal system on. But he is unprepared psychologically and emotionally for the increased and constant persecution he receives which makes his end all the more tragic.
On its release, ‘Lenny’ was a critical triumph and received 6 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director and Actor but won none. Despite the fact that Lenny Bruce remains a significant cultural figure today for his significance as a stand-up comedian, this film has been largely forgotten. That is unjust as this is arguably the finest work Fosse and Hoffman did during their respective careers. A film well worth seeking out.