After winning the Oscar for Best Director in 1972 in front of Francis Ford Coppoli, winning it for the cult musical “Cabaret”, Bob Fosse decided to deal with the character and work of stand-up comedian and satirist Lenny Bruce. Bruce began to break into the scene of something that was not yet called stand-up comedy in the early fifties, and with his then controversial, provocative and usually intentionally vulgar performances, he opened the space for all those who came then. Today, it is somehow completely normal for all these great more or usually less witty comedians to swear on stage. It’s not that swearing bothers me in particular, but usually when someone uses swearing excessively, it’s usually a hint that they are trying to cover up the lack of wit and well-thought-out jokes.
However, in Bruce’s time the situation was significantly different, so back in the 1960s it was forbidden to swear and say something that was then called obscene. Because of his obscenity, Bruce ended up in court several times, and in a film written by Julian Barry and shot by Fosse, Bruce’s fight for freedom of speech is one of the backbones of this exceptional biography. With this film, Fosse also confirmed that he is a perfect director and “Lenny” is a stylistically completely different film from “Cabaret” or later “All that Jazz”. He shot it in black and white, using partly the style of a fake documentary in which we learn some details from his life in parallel from interviews with characters playing people close to Lenny.
Yet another important link in the chain of success of this film is Dustin Hoffman in one of the best roles of his career who is standard outstanding and convincing. If there is one thing that annoys me in biographical films, it is when the masks and make-up of the actor create an imitation of the character he is impersonating. Hoffman took a different path and he created his own Lenny, an angry, resentful, unhappy guy who decided if he had to sacrifice his own career to prove himself right. Narratively, Barry and Fosse found some inspiration in Welles’ “Citizen Kane”, so here an anonymous biographer interviews people close to him, such as stripper Honey, who will soon become his wife, mother, manager, and then follow his rise and fall through flashbacks.
We see how Bruce was really bad in the beginning and how he evolved over time to eventually become the third best stand-up comedian of the 20th century according to the Rolling Stone list. The whole film seems a bit chaotic, just like Bruce’s life was obviously, and in addition to directing, the camera is also inspired, editing, in the then prevailing New Hollywood, modernist style. Although “Lenny” is definitely not a comedy, as it is not a classic biographical film, we can very easily understand why this comedian was so important, and he would be equally relevant and topical today. He decided to use words as a weapon in the fight against hypocrisy, hypocrisy and false moralism, and thanks to him, later generations of comedians found it much easier to pave the way.
Unlike “Cabaret”, which despite winning “Godfather” managed to win an incredible eight Oscars, “Lenny” failed to confirm any of the six nominations (best film, director, lead actor, supporting actress, photography and adapted screenplay), anyway it is an exceptional film. A film in which Fosse and Hoffman managed to portray Bruce as an almost divided person – at the same time he is a kind of martyr who decided to sacrifice for some more good, but also a tortured guy, an addict who is afraid of his own inner demons.