Leaving the discussion of whether this Bob Fosse-directed biopic “accurately” captures Lenny Bruce’s soul to others with more knowledge of the matter, it’s fair to describe Lenny as one of the boldest attempts ever made to find a cinematic style perfectly suited to a real-life subject. In many ways echoing the vibe of the smoky jazz clubs where the real Bruce earned his reputation as an iconic counterculture comedian, Fosse employs a freewheeling storytelling approach that jumps back and forth in time, frequently lingering on extended re-creations of famous Bruce monologues. Furthermore, Fosse presents the whole picture in stark black-and-white cinematography that suggests rare footage of an underground performer caught in the act. One could easily argue, in fact, that Lenny has an overabundance of directorial imprint, bludgeoning its story with razzle-dazzle showmanship and a self-consciously grim tone. Yet that might actually be how Fosse employs his artistic license to the greatest effect. Perhaps this isn’t a film about who Lenny Bruce was, per se, but rather a film about what Lenny Bruce meant—in the sense of representing onscreen the milieu that Bruce painted with the incendiary words of his comedy routines.
Accordingly, the world of Lenny is a dour space filled with drugs, rage, sex, and trouble. Moreover, just as Bruce eventually succumbed to his own darkness, wasting the last years of his life on fruitless censorship battles before dying of a drug overdose at age 40 in 1966, Lenny hurtles into bleaker and bleaker terrain with each passing scene. It’s unlikely anyone will ever make a more depressing film about a funnyman.
Cast wisely for his skill at channeling Bruce’s self-destructive intensity, rather than any superficial ability to replicate Bruce’s comedic technique, Dustin Hoffman drives the film with a merciless performance. He incarnates Bruce as a self-involved, self-righteous son of a bitch who fascinates and repels people at the same time. Admirable for his chutzpah and for his messianic crusade to draw taboo subjects into the light, Bruce comes across as a man who must die for postwar America’s sins—in aggravating the establishment, Bruce changes the world even as he damns himself.
Amid this provocative situating of Bruce as a free-speech hero, Fosse investigates Bruce’s private life primarily through Bruce’s courtship with and marriage to a stripper named Honey. Working from a literate script by Julian Barry, who adapted his own play of the same name, Fosse lingers on curvaceous actress Valerie Perrine (who plays Honey) in a way that echoes Bruce’s fascination with sleazy sexuality. (One typical flourish: Fosse intercuts a threesome in the Bruce bedroom with the nightclub routine it inspires, during which Bruce memorably opines in a sing-song voice, “I like dykes.”) Advancing the idea of Bruce-as-martyr, much of the film explores Bruce’s attempt to clean up his act for the mainstream, an endeavor that results in spectacular failure. Then, finally, the film dramatizes Bruce’s descent into oblivion with harrowing realism.
Despite its exquisite artistic and technical qualities—notably Fosse’s quicksilver storytelling and Robert Surtees’ crisp cinematography—Lenny is a rough ride, presenting a barrage of anger and emotional abuse and wasted talent. A bit much? Perhaps. Nonetheless, the film garnered myriad accolades, including Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. The film also serves, although to a much lesser degree than All That Jazz (1979), as something of a veiled autobiography for Fosse, whose life had parallels to Bruce’s toxic combination of onstage pizzazz and offstage extremes.