Saturday, 22 November 2014

Lenny (1974)

Lenny Bruce is perhaps still America's greatest most revered stand up comedian, but he wasn't always the case and like Van Gogh, it is perhaps only in death that his real talent was truly assessed. Bruce knew that stand up comedy was hard and he knew that the rewards could be glorious, but all too often Bruce's cruel and unwarranted reward was castigation, persecution and punishment. A pioneer of the form, Bruce was a liberating proponent of speaking that which had never been spoken aloud before; in saying what he thought he made an audience both laugh and think as well as ultimately being responsible for changing the rules of what is deemed acceptable. 

The comedian's death aged just 40 in 1966 from 'acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose' was a tragedy which, when combined with the hounding he faced right up until his premature demise from law enforcement and the establishment, made him a martyr and goes some way to explain his revered status today. It was Julian Barry's 1972 Broadway stage play Lenny which first asked us to reassess the man and, two years later, director Bob Fosse adapted the play for cinema.

Fosse, with his background in theatre and choreography, naturally captures the atmosphere of Bruce's world - the strip joints, cabaret nights and dive bars - in all its grubby and authentic glory. Captured in stark monochrome only serves to make the film's visual style even more real and impressive, with many scenes and moments looking like captured in the moment photojournalism. This documentarian  approach is further sustained by the narrative which sees an anonymous biographer interviewing those who were close to Lenny (his wife, his mother and his agent) Citizen Kane style which allows a framework to explore the non linear anecdotal scenes that depict Lenny's rise, his brief but glorious moment in the sun and ultimately his bitterly hard fall.  

It's perhaps more telling to consider the Lenny Bruce this movie does actually give us. Personally, unless you're a fan or have even the slightest of appreciation for the man's work I don't think you're going to come away a convert. As I say, Bruce's moment in the sun, his period in which he achieved a reputation for being a funny, enjoyable night out with material that is hilarious as well as challenging and thought provoking, was all too brief and the film shows that in a similarly brief manner. Much of Lenny is mainly made up of his whirlwind love affair and subsequent turbulent marriage to Honey, a stripper played by the striking Valerie Perrine, and his decline which saw him rabidly reciting transcripts of his own trails to rapidly dwindling audiences. From this, it is clear that Fosse and Barry (who adapted his play for the film) are more keen to push the notion of Bruce, the unfairly maligned performer, than a genuinely funny act. The makers are more preoccupied with giving us a victim of society who tried to make his audience and his establishment wake up, rather than actively persuade us of his merits. Like I say, it's perhaps not for newcomers to Bruce.

Though his now ludicrous 'crimes' are shown and fixated upon, what we are not shown is the period, shortly after Bruce's marriage, which saw him fraudulently raising $8,000 in donations for a fictional charity for leprosy which he made up and pretended to be a priest and representative of, all because he wanted to make enough money to allow his new bride the opportunity to retire from stripping! His drug issues, for which he was renowned, are also somewhat skirted over as is his near Messianic complex following his first arrest for obscenity in 1961. Bruce is, to Fosse and Barry, a hero and is thus portrayed as such, when we all know that no one is so clear cut or uncomplicated.

As with many a biopic, the real Lenny Bruce and what he means to varying people remains ambiguous and elusive.  Equally the other characters and their actions are also depicted somewhat gossamer like; Valerie Perrine's Honey is unmistakably a damaged individual (in real life she began stripping as a runaway teenager and served time in prison for several thefts, referenced in the film) who struggled terribly with drug addictions, but all too often Fosse is content to present Perrine's natural voluptuous beauty laid bare, rather than explore it too deeply which makes the threesome she has with a girlfriend and Lenny a somewhat frustrating hook for both audience titillation (as is her, authentic but long lingering, striptease scenes) and later a narrative drama that allows her and Lenny to fight. It's a credit to Perrine's acting prowess that she manages to create a three dimensional and sympathetic character here in her own right rather than just a sounding board for Dustin Hoffman's Lenny and a piece of meat to be aroused by and later to sympathise for. 

Which leads us to the star himself; Hoffman is, naturally, brilliant but he never once tries to emulate Bruce and his recreations of Bruce's act are delivered in a manner which keeps the power of the words but allows the humour to largely get lost in translation, perhaps to keep the general tone of bleak drama, hypocrisy and unfairness within the film rather than lighten the mood in any way shape or form. Again, this antiseptic approach is unlikely to draw in new devotees of the comedian. 

A superbly directed and shot film, dripping with the nightclub atmosphere, makes Lenny a stand out - it's just a shame the presentation of its subject matter, the life of the man himself, remains as black and white as the footage; ultimately biased and unconcerned with reaching out to the masses. There are however moments that continue to intrigue despite never truly reaching their potential, moments like those of Bruce in full gaudy Messianic mode, 'preaching' to an equally gaudy adoring or would be hip audience, that remind me a little of the Peter Finch character Howard Beale in Network, a man whose howls of pain and insecurity were exploited as examples of modern day prophecy. It's a shame the film didn't explore that more complex idea a little more.

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