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Most film biographies depict extraordinary people, presented glowingly. By this, I mean that we have little ambiguity about the belief that the person in the film is a great, inspiring, individual. Of course, this has to happen, because why make a movie about a useless real person that lasts two to three hours?? At the very least, the subjects` flaws are dwarfed by their attributes.

This leads us to Bob Fosse`s bio of comedian Lenny Bruce. Bruce certainly contributed to society, by drawing attention to the freedom of speech issue, which he defended numerous times, even while being arrested for obscenity. Much of his comedy dealt head-on with subjects which, at the time, nobody would talk about. This film does not question these facts, and is certainly worthy of a film bio. But Bob Fosse does something else, which is very risky, and that is to present its subject not as a hero of free-speech, but as a complex, deeply flawed individual. This is all the more risky when you are dealing with an entertainer, as well as someone who apparently did so much to expose the world to the futility of censorship. People want to see the glamour and the success, they want to see someone bold and daring enough to fight for our rights. But they don`t want to feel depressed, or be forced to truly think about this individual, but that is what Lenny forces you to experience.

Lenny Bruce fans have expressed their discontent in such places as the film`s entry in the Internet Movie Database. Dustin Hoffman is miscast as Lenny, the routines aren`t funny, the plot is not detailed enough, and so on. There is no doubt that the film does not show us a lot of comedy.... but this is not a comedy film, but a drama. Dustin Hoffman is a great actor, and he does what he can, and does in fact pull off the task of giving us a glimpse into Bruce`s comedy. And the plot.... well, Fosse does give us a plot, but not the one rabid fans probably expected.

My opinion is that a vast majority of the Lenny Bruce fans were disappointed because they ended up seeing a film rather than a love-in (think of Man on The Moon, the Andy Kaufman bio which dealt with a somewhat related personality, yet felt about as unbiased and blunt as a political pamphlet, sacrificing truth for constant attempts at laughter). Lenny is a dark, grim piece of work, shot in moody black-and-white, and absent of any forced attempts at humour, warmth, or sentimentality. That is just the way Bob Fosse sees this story.

The film details the rise and fall of this famous comedian. At first, he performs lousy comedy and poor imitations at cheap nightclubs. And in his personal life, he meets Honey Harlowe, a stripper played by Valerie Perrine. As the years go by, the two get married, and Bruce the comic becomes famous for pushing the envelope (the movie does not quite get into detail on his change in comedic insight). His personal and professional lives both intertwine and mirror each other. This occurs as a result of the two of them becoming heavily involved in drugs and other hedonistic activities, while at the same time, his career takes numerous hits due to charges of obscenity. The rest of the film depicts a free fall into utter self-destruction.

Dustin Hoffman portrays Lenny as a deeply flawed individual, whose biggest flaw is that he cannot handle the pressure of being both famous and persecuted. Over and over, he is charged for obscenity, which creates a situation where he is even more popular, and the film implies that this has little to do with his talent but rather his notoriety, and the chance that something even more outrageous might happen. At first, he is able to survive the attention with his humour intact. But, soon, his troubles are a curse, a scarlet letter, which ruins him. The single most wrenching scene in this regard is a performance where he wanders out, in a trenchcoat, high as a kite, and delivers a rambling, incoherent rant on entrapment and harassment. This ends when he whispers desperately to the audience that he cannot take it anymore, that he is not funny, and walks out. This entire sequence is done in one unbroken, unmoving long shot. The camera cruelly, dispassionately witnesses his despair as well as the audience`s reaction.

Bob Fosse`s camera also cruelly witnesses Lenny Bruce no longer in fashion with the crowd. This occurs in a running commentary throughout the film, presented as a performance taking place after much of the actual story in the film. Bruce is supremely obsessed with his legal troubles, and the meaning of obscenity, and all this causes is an alienated audience, who slowly drift away from him.

Another important aspect of the film involves his personal life. In the Andy Kaufman bio, for example, we are presented with a loving, eccentric couple. But in Lenny we see manipulation, lies and misery. We know about the drugs. We also know that Lenny has had affairs, and lied about them. We are also witness to a painful result of Lenny`s need to push the boundaries even in his personal relations. Lenny, in one scene, tells Honey that he wants to engage in a threesome with her and another woman. Honey attempts to get out of it, but can`t, because she is unable to respond to Lenny`s claims that if she loves him, she will do this for him. We actually do get to see this threesome, but not in the way we expect. Played against complete silence, helped by the black-and-white cinematography, the fears and curiosity in Honey`s face are juxtaposed with the imposing presence of the act`s orchestrator, and we are soon witness to more emotional pain.

What Bob Fosse does is give us an open-ended view of this person. We are forced to think whether he was a great man done in by society, or whether he did himself in, while society enjoyed the spectacle for a time before they got bored. Either one of these conclusions may work. Personally, I was leaning toward the latter. Throughout the viewing of this film, I had the feeling that Lenny was setting himself up for a fall. He marries someone who is certainly his sexual fantasy, so expects her to follow that fantasy. His comedy shocks the world, and brings issues to light, but has the misfortune of being unable to defend himself without sounding like a bore, or, usually, utterly desperate. The man was not just a martyr for the rights and freedoms of the rest of us, but was a victim of his own hungers and needs.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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