In honor of the late George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV, FSR recommends 1974’s Lenny, the tragedy of comedian-satirist Lenny Bruce, who heavily influenced Carlin, Pryor, and Woody.
Dustin Hoffman is brilliant in his intense portrayal of upcoming comic Lenny Bruce, who burns with lust for Honey Harlow, stripper-junkie and enforced-lesbian fantasy woman who shimmies, strips, and shakes her “tits and ass” into his being. A punishing marriage to Honey dims neither his ardor nor his zeal to share drugs with her. With a cherubic face, appealing lisp, and steamy sensuality, one-time Vegas showgirl Valerie Perrine plays Honey with gay abandon.
Lenny is a dark biopic which partly explains Oscar-winning director Bob Fosse‘s choice of black and white film. From Lenny’s start in small family Catskill resorts to big-city clubs, Fosse focuses Cassavetes-like extreme close-ups to great effect. It’s like being stoned at an anarchist’s convention in Andy Warhol’s studio. Transvestites, burned-out comics, musicians, and strippers, aided by Ralph Burns’s muted original jazz score, shine a bleak light on seedy off-stage life. Albert Goldman, one of Lenny Bruce’s biographers and a onetime film critic, has described Lenny as worshipping “the gods of Spontaneity, Candor and Free Association” who “fancied himself an oral jazzman.” Miles Davis lends musical authenticity to the atmosphere.
For a few years in the sixties, Lenny Bruce was famous for rapid-patter social commentary, fueled by his favorite drug, methadrine. His mouth hardly kept up with his mind’s frenetic pace. Honey and Lenny descended into an inferno of sex binges and heroin-sniffing marathons. They lived in a world of encroaching darkness. Then things worsened.
He endured a series of arrests for possession, and using “obscene” language onstage. He believed the real obscenities were not words, but the Kennedy assassination and Viet Nam. Arrests in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia, changed him from a bright, articulate, politically hip satirist, into a mumbling addict discussing little else onstage except his legal troubles. Fans found him boring.
Lenny’s real enemy wasn’t the cops who kept arresting him, but the era in which he came to prominence. At 40, drugs finally killed him. Bruce’s efforts to liberate words from categories of “good” and “bad” were thwarted by a morally inhibited public.
Lenny publicly flaunted the words “fuck” and “cocksucker” onstage. His believed frequent use of such words would render them impotent. He went further than we go now, trashing his audience with racial and religious epithets so politically incorrect that today, an instant apology would be demanded.
Lenny is filmed as a sparce documentary, using an interview structure, (“a variation on the Citizen Kane format in which characters are questioned about the protagonist”*) with Honey, Lenny’s possessive mom Sally, and his agent, Artie Silver, with quick cuts between stage performances and off-stage self-destructive behavior.
Fosse’s use of painful pauses in Lenny’s last performance causes us to shift with discomfort in our seats, just as did his real audience — before they started to walk out.
After the cops took away his cabaret card and the high cost of lawyers drove Lenny into bankruptcy, he disastrously represented himself in court. In one scene, he pitifully begs the judge, “Don’t take away my words. Please don’t take away my words!”
Critics felt that Bruce’s involvement with drugs and sex was played down in the film, but he had only been dead eight years, and Honey, daughter Kitty, and Sally, were all alive and kicking. Still, Fosse manages to convey an obsessed performer’s attempts to express himself to a world that simply didn’t get it.
“‘Fuck you.’ Never understood that insult, because fucking someone is actually really pleasant. If we’re trying to be mean, we should say ‘unfuck you!'”
“Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt gave Lou Gehrig the clap?”
Some of Lenny’s best quotes (understandably) didn’t make it into the movie, which began with an X rating. One of them is “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”
“I rode with him in a taxi once, only for a mile and a half. Seemed like it took a couple of months” -Bob Dylan
The film’s producer, Marvin Worth, was Lenny Bruce’s first manager.
Contenders for the title role included Cliff Gorman who originated the role on Broadway, and Al Pacino.
Dustin Hoffman told the Village Voice, “I didn’t want to do the film. It was too hairy, too tender ground, too soon. People I’d talk to would suddenly start crying. It was important, they’d tell me, to catch the dichotomy that was Lenny. On stage, he was a tiger. In real life, he was agreeable, generous to a fault; people loved being with him, until just before his death when he got demonical. With such strong emotions at stake, I didn’t want to jump into it.”
Contenders for the role of Honey included Ann-Margret who turned it down due to the excessive nudity which Fosse said was absolutely necessary.
Nominated for six Oscars (Hoffman, Perrine, Fosse, Best Picture, Screenplay, and Cinematography/Bruce Surtees), it didn’t win any.
During a scene in which Lenny pulls the bed sheet off a titillating naked Honey, Perrine confessed she had a little surprise for Hoffman. “He couldn’t believe his eyes,” she told Viva in 1975. “I had gotten a big springy rubber cock from the prop department and tucked it right between my legs — and the minute the sheet was off, it sprang up and started going boing! boing! boing! That really cracked Dustin up.”
*Razzle Dazzle: the Life and Work of Bob Fosse, by Kevin Boyd Grubb