Bob Fosse’s forceful and uniquely constructed biopic Lenny remains as topical and exhilarating today as it likely did upon first release back in 1974. Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography, the film was a critical and commercial success, even if the potentially distancing aesthetic put off some viewers and film aficionados upon first glance. The film expertly cuts back and forth between key and intimate moments of Bruce’s life, showing him in his full comic glory, but also detailing the darker times, when he was extremely wasted and strung-out. The script also delves into the latter portions of his life where he used his own nightclub as a venting arena for all of his personal problems and hardships, often times reading his arrest reports and court transcripts. Dustin Hoffman was consistently electrifying as Lenny Bruce, burrowing deep into his feverish psyche, always a loose cannon and ready to explode with intelligent vulgarity and a sense of purpose that defined him as a stand-up comic and general rapscallion. It’s a performance of startling conviction, and a further reminder of the live-wire quality that Hoffman exuded in the 70’s.
Similar to the themes in a film like The People vs. Larry Flynt, this is yet another movie to examine the importance of free speech, and to celebrate the idea of the nonconformist. Bruce’s material had a subversive quality that the best types of entertainment can bring out, always questioning himself and those around him, and challenging societal norms and expectations. Valerie Perrine won the award for Best Actress at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why, as it’s a show-stopping performance of overt sexuality and unquestionable emotional tenderness, and when juxtaposed with Bruce’s hard-charging theatrics, it was easy to see why they were such a great match for each other. The smoky and gorgeous black and white cinematography by Bruce Surtees is a constant treat, and the numerous sequences detailing the various performances and arrests that befell Bruce during his rise to fame are handled with a devil-in-the-eye sense of humor. And of course, this being a tragic story, Fosse doesn’t shy away from the ugly price of fame, showing how Bruce was a true pioneer, and how that fact more than likely cost him his life. Playwright Julian Barry adapted his own work for the screen. Available on Blu-ray via Twilight Time.