One of the biggest highlights of this year’s TCM Festival was Dustin Hoffman appearing for a screening of Lenny, the sad story of comedian Lenny Bruce, who left us way before his time.
Lenny did comedy like no-one else of his era (mid 1950’s-early 1960’s). Unfortunately, his routine’s were considered “obscene” and he was arrested many times during his act, all over the country. Although what Lenny did is pretty tame by today’s standards, things were much different then. His peers including Don Rickles, Bill Cosby, and Jonathan Winters, all worked clean by today’s standards.
I had not seen this film since it opened in 1974. It is much better than I remembered it. Watching it as a mature adult probably did help. Hoffman went on to much bigger things, but is still proud of his work in Lenny, as he should be. Lenny is a time capsule to much more restrictive times.
Hoffman had a few hits under his belt before doing Lenny, including The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and Little Big Man. Bob Fosse was hired as director, a man that was mainly known for musicals. Fosse knew little about Lenny Bruce himself, as Lenny was not a household name. Valerie Perrine who played Honey, Lenny’s wife, and Dustin Hoffman also knew little, if anything, about the man whose life story they were portraying.
The fact that Lenny still holds up 40 years later is a testament to the talents and research that they all put into the film. Hoffman admits he disagreed with Fosse quite often during the film, but now says Fosse was right. There is one long dramatic scene where Lenny just breaks down during a performance, turning his back to the audience. This was Hoffman’s finest moment, and one that Fosse encouraged him to do with no edits.
Lenny Bruce and Honey were not good for each other. This was proven by their slow but steady descent into drug addiction and prison. Honey was a stripper who Lenny met in a cafeteria when he was doing straight-laced comedy. Each one fed on the other’s insecurities which worked for awhile, with Lenny actually becoming one of the top comedians on the circuit.
All looked well for awhile, but Honey just couldn’t stay clean, and Lenny couldn’t deal with censorship. After multiple arrests, Lenny became so obsessed with the injustice he was suffering, he let his comedy go down the drain, which ultimately destroyed him. Having Miles Davis music throughout the film perfectly set the scene for what nightclub life was like in the early 60’s.
When asked how he prepped for the film, Hoffman said he studied many comedians, not just Lenny Bruce. He had stories about Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett, and many other big names of the day. Hoffman also stated that Robin Williams and Billy Connolly (who he directed last year in Quartet), were the only two comedians ever, who could work without a script.
I agree with Hoffman, but I must add Jonathan Winters to that list. When Hoffman mentioned Robin Williams name, he immediately broke into tears. He was not acting! Hoffman is one of the true gems of our generation, and Lenny is one of his finest efforts. Valerie Perrine also hit her peak in this role. All serious film students should see this movie, and then listen to Miles Davis for full effect.