Lenny Bruce was probably the single most significant comedian of the 20th century and a potent cultural figure whose battle against the taboos imposed by the state was of immense importance to the development of art in general and American art in particular. That said, I don't see the necessity of turning him into some kind of saint but that, sadly, is exactly what Bob Fosse's Lenny attempts to do. It's not a bad movie - far from it - but it is a fundamentally timid one and timidity is one thing of which Lenny Bruce could never have been accused.
The film uses a pseudo-documentary technique using 'interviews' with actors playing Lenny's wife, mother and agent to tell the story of his rise to popularity and his downfall at the hands of the moral guardians of America.. Interspersed with the interviews are depictions of Bruce's personal life, his clashes with the authorities and excerpts from stage routines from throughout his career. This has the advantage of rendering the depiction of events reasonably clear and of offering a perspective on how Bruce affected those closest to him. It has the enormous disadvantage of breaking up the material and preventing us from seeing at any length the interaction between Bruce and his audience and the broader showbiz milieu from which he emerged.
Dustin Hoffman's performance as Lenny has been widely praised and it's easy to see why. He uses his immense charisma as a performer to his advantage and it's entirely believable that Hoffman could have been a successful stand-up comedian. His rapport with the audience is total and his timing is immaculate. But the one thing he never manages to do is convince us that he is Lenny Bruce. If you watch film of Bruce in action during his heyday, you see a wired, brilliantly funny man who is a bundle of aggression and anger. The real Bruce doesn't sweet talk his audience or offer moral justifications for the material from which he is getting laughs. He's outright obnoxious sometimes and often a little too much for the camera to contain (presumably this wasn't a problem for the live audience). Hoffman is too nice and too eager to be liked and the writer, Julian Barry, conspires with him by giving Bruce little speeches in which he explains why he's using shock words like 'nigger' or discussing the subject of cocksucking. This certainly makes Bruce more appealing but doesn't chime with what we know about the man himself, from the reports of those who knew him and footage of his performances. Hoffman gives a great performance here but he's not Lenny Bruce and he seems to know it. The smiles he drops in, as if to say "Hey I'm just kidding" are the clincher. Bruce was never kidding, he was deadly serious and if people were offended then all the better. The reason I labour this point is that when I first saw this film, aged 18, I thought this was Lenny Bruce and it took me the better part of ten years to discover that it wasn't. It's a sentimental approximation of what people would have liked him to be.
Having expressed this major reservation, it's only fair to say that, on its own terms, Lenny is an extremely good film. Bob Fosse only directed five films for the cinema (and one Liza Minnelli TV special) and he must be unusual, if not unique, in that all of them are fine pieces of work from the explosive energy of Sweet Charity to the underrated power of Star 80. What marks out his work is the care he takes with his actors, his fertile collaboration with the very best cinematographers and the attention to detail in the settings. This pays dividends in Lenny through Bruce Surtees's evocative and atmospheric black and white cinematography. Surtees, who worked with Clint Eastwood on countless occasions and also contributed world class work to Dirty Harry, Big Wednesday and Night Moves, uses stark contrasts in lighting to suggest the martyrdom aspects of Lenny (a theme which I dislike but which is pivotal to the conception of the character) and composes images with breathtaking clarity. The use of harsh front and back lighting is a masterclass in itself. Surtees and Fosse work together to create this almost Christlike view of Lenny Bruce and I have to say that this is ludicrous and oddly offensive to those of us who don't need to turn an antiestablishment rebel into a tragic martyr, but given their conception they certainly see it through to the end. The script is, however, a problem. When it sticks to the routines then it's fine, even though many of the best bits are ruined by Hoffman trying to be a nice guy and the decision to break them up into snippets which means he never gets a performance rhythm going. The difficulty is the dialogue given to the other characters, notably to Valerie Perrine playing his wife, which is prosaic and horribly sentimental. These characters aren't sufficiently fleshed out either - the wife, Honey, first appears doing a steamy striptease which suggests she's an erotic powerhouse but she then turns into a pathetic junky doormat. The temptation seems to have been to suggest that Lenny Bruce was fucked up by his wife, especially since his offstage life, bar promiscuity, appears to have been cleaned up. I don't think we would be too shocked to learn about his drug taking and drinking but the film, desperate to tell us how the wicked state destroyed this truth-telling genius, fumbles anything which might suggest he had more a small streak of self-destructiveness. This only comes through during a courtroom scene at the end when Bruce talks himself into jail and it's only here that the film really convinces. Nor do we get enough sense of the revolutionary aspects of Bruce's emergence in the comedy establishment of the 1950s and early 1960s. There is a good scene of Bruce clashing with an established Jewish comedy star at the Catskils but this isn't followed through and we don't really discover the way in which Bruce was the vital link between, for the sake of argument, Jack Benny and Richard Pryor.
The film is exceptionally well made but it is essentially fraudulent and timid. It never addresses the issues it raises - freedom of speech, obscenity, the way an individual willfully turns himself into an enemy of the establishment - and drifts off into soap opera whenever it threatens to reveal something realistically messy about its central character. The conclusions it comes to are that freedom of speech is a good thing and that Lenny Bruce's downfall was a bad thing but those are things that most of us liberal viewers already knew - it preaches to the converted and tells us what we want to hear, but that's not good enough. Bruce was certainly an advocate of free speech but he was also a dangerous, 'dirty' comedian and a great one at that - pretending that he was a saint who proselytized the things we believe in doesn't get to the truth of the matter. The film, funny and sometimes touching as it is, tells us nothing we don't already know and that, ultimately, is its failure.
This is an MGM back catalogue release and is thus a disc without any significant special features. As the transfer isn't very special either we have to label it a missed opportunity.
The film is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is anamorphically enhanced. It's a mixed bag. There is a good deal of grain on the image, although this may be intentional to enhance the documentary aspects and, as such, it doesn't do a great deal of harm to the film. What can't be intentional is the white speckling throughout. There is also some minor print damage in the form of scratching. The occasional artifacting is less of a problem but particularly noticeable due to the harsh contrasts in the lighting of the film. However, the clarity of the image is superb and very sharp and shadow detail is exceptional. Overall, this is slightly above average but the film would have benefited from a proper restoration. Incidentally, the film is in black and white despite the front cover photo being in colour.
The soundtrack is in Mono, reflecting the original recording of the film. It is absolutely fine and very clear without hiss or distortion.
The only extra is the original British theatrical trailer which is preceded by a nostalgic view of the BBFC certification screen from the 1970s. It's interesting to see how such a verbally explicit film has been represented in a U certificate trailer. The trailer is overlong but pretty representative of the way 'respectable' films such as this were marketed at the time.
There are the usual 16 chapter stops and a wide range of subtitles.
This DVD is a missed opportunity. There is a vast array of background material available on Lenny Bruce and at least four major documentaries about his life. A commentary from a critic familiar with Fosse's work would have been interesting as well. As it is, we get a standard back catalogue release with no frills and an average transfer. If you like the film then it's worth consideration but there's nothing here to get excited about.