Review: Lenny

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

I came away from Lenny with the vague notion that the documentary angle employed by Fosse as a structural device facilitating the necessary chronological jumps through Bruce’s career never quite worked in the manner he had intended it to. Roaming through the mystique-tinged Xanadu of Lenny’s life and times, somebody armed with a tape recorder and a notepad is asking a lot of questions about the comic, social critic, iconoclast-at-large, but at the end of each cinéma-vérité sequence there is always Dustin Hoffman, master of histrionic disguises, masked here in yet another astonishing role. Just who eclipses whom is a question I won’t try to answer, but Hoffman’s own near-mythic status has such a strong pull that it’s hard to stop thinking what a fantastic job he is doing in imitating Bruce. Lenny’s hybrid combination of documentary and dramatic narrative offers no help in locating the interface wherein their respective images cross, and in fact gives rise to inconsistencies of its own: the tone of the interviews themselves runs counter to the mainstream of the dramatic current of which Hoffman is the center. In other words, Fosse tries to provide a context of realism (the interviews) to a stageplay, but that context, too, is a “fake.” One wonders why he went to such pains to imitate this kind of atmosphere, taking it to the point of making the interviewer’s presence a sort of bumbling non-presence which can never be heard distinctly and which forgets to charge reels on the recorder, when the reality he conjures is tantamount to pointless tautology—like trying to photograph a reflection in a mirror so that it looks like the real object.

Critics have suggested that Fosse had in mind something of a contemporary Citizen Kane, and while the manner of interviewing all the people who knew Lenny in an effort to find out what made him go might be seen as essentially Kane-ish, Charlie Kane’s would-be biographer at least showed his silhouette (if not his face), and came to some conclusions as well, if only to admit defeat in his search for the significance of “Rosebud.” The documentary approach to Lenny never culminates in anything so concrete, leaving us to ponder the Meaning for ourselves. While this might be seen in one respect as a kind of hip cop-out, one should in fairness ask whether Fosse is really positing a mystery to the Bruce legend in the first place. He does, after all, clearly trace a relatively credible progression from Bruce’s early days as a straight comic to his final, strung-out gropings and intensely boring judicial polemics taking off from the court transcripts of his obscenity trial. Bruce, in Fosse’s conception, was not so much un-understandable as misunderstood, a fact he beautifully brings to light in a scene which seems central to grasping the essential Bruce of Lenny. Hoffman stumbles onstage, completely stoned, wearing a raincoat and one shoe. The audience waits silently, a bit uncomfortably, for him to start laying it on them. They want to “go” with Lenny, but Lenny can’t quite pick up the pieces of his act. Parts of jokes dribble out, the audience tries to laugh and applaud—and not only Lenny’s audience, but Lenny‘s audience as well. I caught myself in the same dilemma as the people in the nightclub, wanting to ignore how pathetic Lenny appears as he stands on that bare stage, looked dispassionately down upon from a camera level slightly above his head. One feels guilty in mid-smirk, and then utterly shitty as Lenny himself admits the plain fact of the scene: “I’m not funny.”

He’s not. Finally, Bruce is dead, which is even more unfunny, and those final, grainy, six-o’clock-news-report shots of police and reporters milling about his room and the last hugely blown-up still showing Lenny crumpled on the floor with his paraphernalia strewn about the room wind up Fosse’s film on a pointedly documentary note, as though to remind us that Lenny was real after all. Yeah, that’s not Hoffman in that photo, that’s Lenny Bruce and he’s really dead. Perhaps Fosse sees in Lenny’s audience a failure to realize that sometimes he wasn’t joking, just as in that rationally deductive world surrounding Charles Foster Kane there was no one who remembered that Charlie was once a child.

LENNY
Direction: Bob Fosse. Screenplay: Julian Barry, after his play. Cinematography: Bruce Surtees. Editing: Alan Heim. Production: David V. Picker, Marvin Worth.
The players: Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner, Stanley Beck, Gary Morton, Rashel Novikoff, Guy Rennie.

Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann


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