Friday, February 07, 2014

Lenny (1974)

USA, 111 minutes
Director: Bob Fosse
Writer: Julian Barry
Photography: Bruce Surtees
Music: Ralph Burns
Editor: Alan Heim
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner, Stanley Beck, Gary Morton

In the chronicles of the careers of stand-up comic Lenny Bruce, director Bob Fosse, and the movie star Dustin Hoffman, Lenny may well be considered a low point. Downbeat, dreary, black and white—something of a willful distortion of a figure now basically obscure beyond "free speech" nuances of legal interpretation and general '60s martyr-mongering, where his reputation largely rests. Released in a particularly emblematic year of '70s cinema, overshadowed by Chinatown, The Godfather: Part II, The Conversation, and many others (not to mention box office juggernauts The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and Airport 1975), Lenny sometimes seems all but lost to history now.

For me, at 19, having dutifully plowed through Albert Goldman's Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! and in the process of attempting to construct an authentic bohemian existence for myself in Minneapolis, Minnesota, it was a revelation and running away my favorite movie of that year. I saw it numerous times. The Goldman biography was written before his books on Elvis Presley and John Lennon revealed Goldman to be a mean-spirited distortion artist, and some of those problems plague his Bruce project as well, albeit in milder form. For the most part they are cleaned up in the movie, which then as now is much less about Bruce anyway and much more about Fosse and Hoffman and their egos and pushing the boundaries of moviemaking.

In fact, what I always liked most about Lenny was the Bob Fosse style, adapting the original Julian Barry play (which I otherwise don't know), making it stagy and showy with razzamatazz editing, bold use of light and dark in black and white, and an elliptical, glancing narrative style that has only the dimmest acquaintance with sequential chronology, yet tells a story very well. I suspect I liked Lenny so much because Cabaret had proved too challenging for my teen self in terms of its sexual license and the various dangerous implications of freedom (later I changed my mind). Besides being more or less strictly heterosexual, Lenny also offers visions of a world I thought I knew better, the underground West Coast bohemian life of the '50s shading into the Kennedy era, with its cool jazz and fondness for language that comes in powerful torrents.

Lenny is full of that, underlined by the grainy black and white scenes of people in apartments getting high and nodding out to jazz, laidback, low-key, drinking wine and talking the cool talk, dig—visual representations of what I was reading about avidly in books like Lawrence Lipton's The Holy Barbarians. Lenny Bruce was not exactly in that set, but moved easily enough around it, coming somewhat later than its main figures, if Goldman's book and this movie are to be trusted. In many ways, Lenny was exactly what I was looking for: the gritty realities of decadence and Nazis in Weimar Germany giving way to the gritty self-absorption of bohemians in post-WWII California. I thought Fosse was totally making the right move.

The most confounding element of the whole thing, of course, remains Dustin Hoffman. At 19, I was dazzled by the brilliance. Now I am a little more baffled by the bullshit. Until then—notably in The Graduate, but also in Midnight Cowboy, Papillon, Little Big Man, and other of his virtuoso performances (many still ahead, of course)—his persona tends to be a person who is a bit of a square and conventional. Ratso might have known the score, but what he wanted was to live in Florida. When I sat down to look at Lenny again for the first time in probably decades the first thing I noticed was how many shots are framed to make Lenny Bruce look like Benjamin Braddock. Hoffman and Fosse are playing equally to it, and it's a little unsettling, occasionally too much entirely.

In terms of a monster of language, well, this is the movie where Hoffman proves he can play exactly that, just as Midnight Cowboy, Tootsie, The Rain Man, and many others provided "stretch" roles for him to flex his considerable cinematic acting skills. The let us say "orality" of this picture is emphasized from the opening shot, an extreme close-up of Valerie Perrine's mouth as she prepares to answer questions for an off-camera documentary filmmaker. The obscured voice of that filmmaker is Bob Fosse's, by the way, and spinning reels on reel-to-reel tape recorders come to take the role of the reporters in Citizen Kane, attempting to piece together the puzzle of a life. This is another strength of the movie, as the freedom for jagged, abrupt movements of the camera and editing (Cassavettes style, yet another note) is afforded by explicitly making it a faux documentary.

The only surprise, in retrospect, is that it opens on Perrine's mouth rather than Dustin Hoffman's. It is very much a movie of Dustin Hoffman talking, talking, talking—numerous stand-up routines at various stages of Bruce's career, which eventually devolve into ranting and reading from trial transcripts, and then scenes from those trials themselves, with Bruce trying to get a word in edgewise to the legal pedantry and succeeding to the extent that he is jailed frequently and harassed. He had their attention. The climactic scene, shot in long from the back of a small club, shows Bruce zonked out on heroin, wandering the stage barefoot and bare-legged in an overcoat, paranoid, mumbling, muttering incoherently, never getting it together to make a point, let alone crack a joke. It reads in many ways like a grotesquely puffed-up piece of self-indulgent improv on the part of An Ambitious and Important Actor, but it turns out to be a verbatim reproduction of a tape-recorded show by Bruce.

I'm calling Lenny the movie of the year for 1974 because it's a sentimental favorite, and because, if you haven't seen it yet, or not in a long time, it just might be more skillful than you think. There's a case to be made for Hoffman chewing the scenery, obviously, and a sadder one about an iconic stand-up comic who doesn't actually seem to have much of a legacy, and yeah, after Star 80 I can see the case for it being the least of Fosse's movies. Yet however much the underpinnings of Lenny may or may not have decayed out from under it, it is simply so good at doing what it does that it's still well worth seeing.

Top 10 of 1974
1. Chinatown
2. Lenny
3. Young Frankenstein
4. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
5. A Woman Under the Influence
6. The Conversation
7. Thieves Like Us
8. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
9. Blazing Saddles
10. Phantom of the Paradise

Other write-ups: The Godfather: Part II

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