[Film Review] Lenny (1974)

Lenny poster

Title: Lenny
Year: 1974
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Bob Fosse
Writer: Julian Barry
Music: Ralph Burns
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Dustin Hoffman
Valerie Perrine
Stanley Beck
Jan Miner
Rashel Novikoff
Gary Morton
Ted Sorel
Rating: 8.6/10

Bob Fosse’s follow-up of CABARET (1972), a faux-interview style, monochromatic biography about Lenny Bruce (1925-1966), an American stand-up comedian, who is famed for his anti-Establishment stance and unswerving endeavour to mock and expose hypocrisy in American society, which also causes his short-lived life beset with trials for obscenity, and he was found dead by a morphine overdose, a common and still rampant cop-out for gone-too-gone showbiz personages.

Through the snippets of interviews with Lenny’s ex-wife Honey (Perrine), a former showgirl, his agent Artie (Beck) and his mother Sally (Miner), recollecting their memories about him, the film interposes the fragments of Lenny’s slice of life: backstage, mostly his tempestuous relationship with Honey and on stage, his performances in various dim-lit dives. Meanwhile, Fosse’s dedicated fly-on-the-wall technique faithfully re-creates the hazy, druggy and decadent atmosphere of the beat generation, Lenny and Honey’s sex liberation experiments (Lenny has affairs every now and then, whereas Honey’s lesbian tendency is vaguely one of the reason of their break-up), their lack of restraint on drug abuse (from marijuana to heroin), and not to mention modern jazz surplus.

Fosse’s unconventional approach vastly stimulates the narrative poignancy, the film is based on screenwriter Julian Barry’s own play, it unfolds chronologically nevertheless, these assorted fragments reveal many a key moment of Lenny and Honey’s life, often with a preempted statement from the interviewees, which works greatly to clarify the story-line and dampen the time-jump caprice, which is an inherent defect in the biopic genre.

Lenny’s jokes, viewed by today’s standard, is quite common or garden if one is familiar with the current climate of American stand-up scene, but at his time, he is a bona fide pioneer, his courage to defy the puritanical moral repression and the pandemic hypocrisy is inspiring, which makes his personal tragedy more harrowing simply because he couldn’t live to receive the pardon he would receive posthumously in 2003.

This is Dustin Hoffman’s best performance, a career-defining feat, he not only superbly emulates a real-life character to a fault, the overlong one-take of him doing Lenny’s scathing and moving final act in a raincoat is simply a cinematic master stroke. Then, in the final scenes of defending himself in the court, Hoffman proves that he is the crème de la crème in bringing about pathos and other emotions.

Valerie Perrine, is pretty awesome too, evinces a naturalistic honesty during the interview sequences, and in the narrative, her portrayal of a showgirl-stripper-bimbo combo rings effectively true. The film reaped altogether 6 Oscar nominations, a top-tier player, for Hoffman, Perrine, Fosse, Barry and Surtees’ outstanding cinematography and BEST PICTURE, but sadly won none of them, we all have our soft spots for unlucky also-rans, especially something is of that caliber, it does raise one’s esteem for Bob Fosse and his troupe, kudos to them!

Lenny 1974


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