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The guy’s a fad, like hula hoops.




Not being a hipster or a Lenny Bruce devotee, I can only respond to Lenny as a movie. But even without bags of insight into the stand-up’s life, act and general milieu, I can tell there’s something wrong with Hoffman’s performance. While he’s more convincing playing a comedian than he is playing a woman in Tootsie, he’s night-and-day funnier playing a woman in Tootsie than he is playing a comedian in Lenny. And there’s also the problem that, as perfectly precise as Bob Fosse’s direction of this movie is, it seems entirely misconceived, trapping the stand-up in monochrome amber.

Lenny Bruce: I didn’t do it, man. I just said it.

Most problematic, though, is neither the main performance nor the direction. Rather, it’s that Lenny has scant dramatic through line, even compared to the typical biopic (bundled together on notable incidents in its subject’s life, the highs the lows, forming some kind of spotty glue). There’s a sequence, about two-thirds of the way in, where Lenny begins receiving attention from the authorities; there’s suddenly a jolt of energy, of conflict sparking up the characters. But then the edge returns to lead, with even the court cases and cops at the shows failing to kick-start the proceedings into life.

Actually, Hoffman’s fairly convincing as the rubbish comedian of Bruce’s early act (“Old jokes and lousy impressions”). The implication is that marrying a stripper sheds his performative (as in, stand-up) inhibitions. Of whom, Valerie Perrine, who’d also played a performer in the revealing arts in Slaughterhouse-Five a couple of years earlier (where she was a soft-core porn actress), is very good, if a victim of Fosse’s structural choices (Honey’s a frequent “interview” subject, reflecting on their lives and times).

Indeed, this technique is rather a chore, all told. The material early on lacks energy, documenting their “rise” to success, and is dogged in traversing the edited lowlights. The interjections break up the flow, insufficiently motivated as they are; what do they add, beyond faux authenticity? There’s clarity of intent here – Fosse wants a stark, stylised approach, whereby the viewer can feel the spotlight on Lenny – but it has an adverse effect on the material.

Pauline Kael’s review – she clearly knew Bruce’s work – is a justifiably devastating critique of the picture. She noted the characters “inhabit an abstract stage-bound world…” and suggested “the script is simply too thin for the method Fosse uses” (Julian Barry adapted his own play). The mind wanders to others who would surely have done a better job of representation; the Scorsese of Mean Streets would have been a better “documentarian” of a low-rent world. The unapologetic Robert Altman a more unblinking channeller of his sentiments. Pacino turned the role down, apparently. He might have had the same problem of an actor playing comedy – even a comedy actor playing comedy like Carrey in Man on the Moon hit the snag of differing styles – but I could see his unflinching vociferousness working for the energy of the part.

Dustin still has that Hoffman nasal whine, and that tell of an uncomfortable smile after delivering a gag, the one that says he wants to be liked and appreciated. It’s the kind of actor’s tic that should have been stomped on by Fosse. Indeed, most striking is that he received an Oscar nomination for the picture (his third); I don’t think I could argue with any of the other six he collected over his career (maybe Wag the Dog). This, though. Sure, he memorised Bruce’s routine, but I’ll warrant many a devotee did and failed to secure a statuette nod for it.

As for the content of Bruce’s act – $750 to say anything that comes into his head – there’s the language, the bit about Jackie Kennedy, religion, race, politics, taboos (sexual, mostly), relationships. Some of it seems debatable – the suggestion that overuse of racial epithets will negate them by making them commonplace – but it’s mainly the sense Hoffman gives of apologetic earnestness in content that feels off. Kael commented “He didn’t ridicule Jackie Kennedy’s actions in order to help women, and he didn’t use racial slurs in order to cleanse the national air. He did heartlessly cynical bits because there were only two possible audience reactions – to be outraged or to laugh. Either way he was the winner…” with the caveat that he was still “a comic, and he wanted them to laugh at what outraged them”.

Kael had it in for the whole tack of the project, that it was “for audiences who want to believe Lenny Bruce was a saintly gadfly who was martyred for having lived before their time”. Further “Hoffman’s Lenny Bruce… is on your side. Lenny Bruce was on nobody’s side”. His performance is “conceived for well-meaning innocents who never saw Lenny Bruce and can listen to Dustin Hoffman delivering bits of Bruce routines and think, People just didn’t understand him then – he isn’t shocking at all”.

Most of all, and something attended to rather clumsily in the movie, the defence of the professor of theology that he is confronting society’s hypocrisy is a baton then taken up by Bruce himself: “Routines don’t work without Bruce’s teasing, seductive aggression and his delirious amorality. If they are presented as the social criticism of a man who’s out to cleanse society of hypocrisy, the material goes flat”. However, Kael also notes “Before his death, in 1966, Bruce himself began the moist process of canonisation; it was his amorality that had shocked people, but now he began to claim it was his morality”. There’s no critique in that regard here, though. Any canonisation is justified.

Prosecution: Your honour, Aristophanes is not testifying here.
Judge: I don’t see how he really could.

The picture garnered six Oscar nominations – Picture, Hoffman, Fosse, Perrine, Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography – but won for none. In a year when it was nudging against The Godfather Part II, Chinatownand The Conversation, and er The Towering Inferno, that’s hardly that surprising. It’s certainly the least visible of the five today, and I’ll admit to having avoided it because I was wary of the very element that proves a fizzle: the actor embodying the funny man (incidentally, the film’s wittiest line, above, isn’t even delivered by Bruce).

The best thing a biopic can probably do – if it’s about an artist – is probably inspire the viewer to investigate its subject further. Apply such a condition to Lenny, and the movie’s an abject failure. Watch Hoffman as Bruce and you’ll see a guy, one who isn’t funny and is actually quite ingratiating, whose targets are at best opportunistically controversial, and who only really seems authentic when he’s treating his significant other like crap. The movie ends on a still of the real Bruce’s dead naked body, and it does seem to be tossed in there as a – as Kael implied – “Look what they did to him”. But the movie fails at even that. Hoffman needed to spark some sense of mythos for there to be any sense of loss.

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