Friday, May 27, 2011

#294. Lenny (1974)

Directed By: Bob Fosse

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner

Tag line: "Lenny's Time Has Finally Come"

Trivia:  Singer Neil Diamond was originally selected to play Lenny, but declined the role

British author Horace Walpole once wrote “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think”. For comedian Lenny Bruce, whose career was plagued by censorship and legal battles, there was no differentiating between the two. In Lenny, comedy and tragedy existed as one. 

Based on Julian Barry’s Broadway play, director Bob Fosse’s Lenny throws a spotlight on Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), perhaps the single most influential stand-up comedian of his - or indeed any - generation. The film follows Bruce from his early days in the Catskills, working as a bit comic in strip joints and night clubs, to the height of his popularity, when his profanity-laced take on politics, society and everyday life brought him a notoriety most performers could only dream of. 

Unfortunately, fame had its share of hardships as well. With a style considered far too controversial for early 1960’s America, Bruce was arrested several times for obscenity, leading to a series of court battles that would drain his spirit as well as his bank account. 

In conjunction with it's title character's legal woes, Lenny also takes us behind-the-scenes, outlining the comedian's tumultuous personal life, including his marriage to former stripper Honey Harlow (Valerie Perrine) and his well-publicized drug problems, which would ultimately cost him his life (in August of 1966, Lenny Bruce was found dead in his home, the victim of an accidental overdose). 

Ultimately, it's this combination of public image and private turmoil that makes Lenny such an impressive cinematic achievement. When on-stage, Bruce was a dynamo of creativity, rattling off observations that were simultaneously poignant and hilarious. Dustin Hoffman does a masterful job harnessing the great comic's energy, but the film's most intense scenes are those that take place away from the spotlight, focusing on the drama that played out behind closed doors. With magnificent performances across the board, Lenny shies away from nothing, and in so doing becomes much more than your run-of-the-mill biopic. 

In the end, it was Lenny Bruce himself who provided his own epitaph, stating he owed everything to “the existence of segregation, violence, despair, disease and injustice”. By attacking such issues at a time when nobody else was doing so, and in a way no one else dared, Lenny Bruce captured the attention of the entire world, and it proved more than he could handle.

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