- Lenny movie review: Director Bob Fosse and screenwriter/playwright Julian Barry’s unfocused, haphazard biopic about the polemical stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce is further impaired by the casting of edgy and neurotic but painfully unfunny Dustin Hoffman in the title role. On the plus side, Valerie Perrine is exceptional as Bruce’s troubled wife, stripper Honey Harlow.
Lenny movie review: Polemical stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce deserved more fearless biopic
Shot in gritty, cinéma vérité-style black and white by Dirty Harry and Play Misty for Me cinematographer Bruce Surtees, Bob Fosse’s 1974 movie Lenny has two major assets: The ever-relevant free speech issues it raises and the riveting presence of Cannes Film Festival winner and Academy Award/BAFTA Best Actress nominee Valerie Perrine (in what amounts to a supporting role).
The film itself, however, is only sporadically provocative or absorbing. In fact, considering the talent involved and the fertile material at hand, Lenny turns out to be a major artistic letdown.
After all, much more should have come out of a joint effort between director Fosse, fresh off his Oscar win for Cabaret (plus a Tony for Pippin and an Emmy for Liza with a ‘Z’); playwright-screenwriter Julian Barry, whose 1971 stage version of Lenny (from an earlier screenplay draft) earned star Cliff Gorman a Tony and a Drama Desk Award; and (then) two-time Best Actor Oscar nominee Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate, 1967; Midnight Cowboy, 1969).
Their polemical subject?
Lenny Bruce (1925–1966), the stand-up comedian who became one of the top representatives of the American antiestablishment movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Rags to riches to fall from glory cliché
Julian Barry’s Lenny screenplay uses the age-old narrative framework about the celebrity who goes from rags to riches to fall from glory (I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Jeanne Eagels, The Buster Keaton Story, etc.), with the added touch of a Citizen Kane-like post-mortem investigation by way of interviews with Lenny Bruce’s former wife, Honey Harlow (played by Valerie Perrine), his mother (Jan Miner, instead of the originally announced Shelley Winters), and his agent (Stanley Beck).
In this manner, we at first follow the rising trajectory of the brazenly Jewish stand-up comic (born Leonard Alfred Schneider), from his days as a second-rate entertainer telling lousy jokes to half-asleep audiences to his unexpected success as a mid-century counterculture icon thanks to his trademark mix of mordant social commentary and hair-raising expletives.
In his private life, the self-obsessed performer is as outrageous as his stand-up routines: He becomes a drug addict and a sex orgy habitué. His wife, leggy WASPish stripper Honey Harlow (born Harriett Jolliff [1927–2005]), also gets entangled in Bruce’s drugs-and-alcohol universe though the couple eventually separate.
At about that time, Bruce’s career hits a snag when law enforcement agencies begin to hound him for his “obscene” humor. Initially, he fights back, but as the pressure – and the financial burden – mount, the increasingly neurotic and self-destructive entertainer falls ever deeper into his own private hell.
Indeed, Lenny implies that Lenny Bruce’s death at age 40 was a suicide resulting from the establishment’s unrelenting persecution.
Unfortunately, Citizen Kane influence or no, Lenny’s moments of innovative storytelling are few and far between, while insights into Bruce’s character – apart from its self-destructiveness – are almost nonexistent.
For instance, Bob Fosse and Julian Barry refrain from pointing out that their victimized antihero became a wealthy man at least in part due to his role as a socially minded preacher sermonizing against the inequalities and hypocrisies of American society. A preacher who, once his pockets are full, proceeds to squander his money on lavish cars and homes, plus heroin, cocaine, and assorted mind-altering substances.
Compounding matters, numerous story points are either left unexplained or poorly developed, such as the extent of Bruce’s drug abuse (it’s not clear if he ever sobered up during the last ten years of his life), the comedian’s relationship with his daughter (shown only briefly), and his eclectic “romantic” life (which is only hinted at).
Most importantly, Lenny never makes it clear whether Bruce’s appeal was chiefly a consequence of the shock-value of his jokes or of the social messages they conveyed. In the eyes of his adoring audiences, was the free speech martyr little more than a foul-mouthed jester?
Miscast Dustin Hoffman
Another crucial Lenny misstep is the casting of Dustin Hoffman in the title role.
The cerebral performer – who received a Best Actor Oscar nod for his efforts – effectively brings to life Lenny Bruce the obsessive neurotic, but almost invariably fails when attempting to bring to life Lenny Bruce the stand-up comedian. True, Fosse and Barry’s movie is not a comedy, but its subject is a comic who, one assumes, should make viewers appreciate his talent.
In the film, nightclub audiences do laugh at Bruce’s jokes – but as if responding to cue cards. With the exception of a sketch in which Hoffman/Bruce cracks jokes about “blah-blah-blahing” – a euphemism for cock sucking – the humor in the comedy acts falls dismally flat.
Overstrung & underbaked
Bob Fosse’s direction is no help. Through much of the film, Fosse’s handling is either overstrung or underbaked; Lenny Bruce’s private turmoil is depicted with the overemphasis usually found in Douglas Sirk melodramas, while cloistered nuns would have managed with more verve the drug-soaked orgies.
And if Alan Heim’s editing is generally excellent, the narrative comes to a grinding halt whenever Fosse’s self-indulgence takes over. Case in point: Honey’s striptease show early on in the film seems to last longer than all of Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret musical numbers put together.
Near the end, when we’re in Lenny’s downfall portion, Fosse forces us to watch an interminable, (purposely) horrendous “comedy” act – actually a reading of Lenny Bruce’s court hearings – in which Dustin Hoffman is filmed in long shot from above. The director wants us to squirm as we watch Bruce disintegrate before our eyes, and most viewers will likely do so – out of sheer boredom.
Righteous anti-censorship exposé
Fosse’s direction is clear and focused only when the film’s anti-censorship theme comes to the fore. Lenny vibrates with poignancy and righteousness – at times even humor – whenever its antihero, whether in courtrooms or nightclubs, exposes the hypocrisy and warped sense of values of mainstream American society. (Needless to say, an equally valid point for societies elsewhere.)
In one segment, Bruce reminds his audience that someone like Zsa Zsa Gabor makes tons of money to appear in shows in Nevada, a state where teachers earn $6,000 a year. Now, that is obscene, he says. And who in their right mind would disagree?
On the other hand, many would also find his own sizable expenditures on drugs obscene, especially when compared to the $6,000 a year earned by Nevadan teachers. The Lenny filmmakers, however, opt to look the other way in that matter.
Although some pundits insist that things in the United States have changed radically in the last 30-odd years – pointing out the release of Lenny itself as an example – much remains just as it was in Lenny Bruce’s day.
If Bruce – or fellow 1950s and 1960s rabble-rouser Allen Ginsberg – were to go on American national radio or television to discuss the same old issues while using the same old four-letter words and/or the same old sexually graphic analogies, they would have U.S. law enforcement, the Traditional Family Values bigots, and the politically correct freaks on their tails.
At the beginning of the 21st century, while U.S. political leaders were lying about the imminent threat of (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction, which resulted in a catastrophic war and hundreds of thousands of deaths, it was the nationally televised (near-)bare breasts of a pop singer that led to cries of obscenity from the guardians of American morality.
To paraphrase Lenny Bruce: You still can’t see bare breasts – let alone male genitalia – in most of the mainstream American media, including popular social media venues. If you do, there’ll be an uproar unless, of course, the breasts have been maimed. Or at the very least thoroughly pixelated.
Director: Bob Fosse.
Screenplay: Julian Barry.
From his own play.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman. Valerie Perrine. Jan Miner. Stanley Beck. Frankie Man. Rashel Novikoff. Guy Rennie. Gary Morton.
Voice: Bob Fosse (as the interviewer).
“Lenny Movie 1974” notes
Award winner Valerie Perrine
In addition, she was named Best Supporting Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review.
From screenplay to play to screenplay
 In a 2009 interview with Ben Pleasants for 3:AM Magazine, Julian Barry explained:
“Lenny began as a film. I was hired by Columbia Pictures to write a movie about Lenny Bruce. They hired Tom O’Horgan, who’d just directed Hair …. Tom and I worked together on the screen play. The project was sold to Columbia as this hip youth movie on the strength of Easy Rider. Peter Guber gave the go ahead. Bad timing. They turned it down originally for language. ‘Why does he have condoms by the bed?’ It was the season of Love Story. Romance was in. Get the hip kid pictures off the lot.”
Lenny Bruce movies
 Also in the early 1970s, Lenny Bruce was the subject of two low-budget big-screen efforts: Herbert S. Altman’s Dirtymouth (possibly due to litigation/rights issues, release dates range from 1970–1974), starring Bernie Travis as Bruce; and Fred Baker’s documentary Lenny Bruce: Without Tears (1972).
 In December 2003, New York governor George Pataki pardoned Lenny Bruce for his 1964 obscenity conviction. It was the first posthumous pardon in New York state history, having taken place nearly four decades after Bruce’s death on Aug. 3, 1966, in Hollywood.
Wardrobe malfunction outrages the faint at heart
 Janet Jackson suffered an acute case of wardrobe malfunctioning while singing and dancing with Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl, broadcast by CBS.
Alongside lawsuit threats by those who find a woman’s bare breasts obscene, the United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined CBS a record $550,000. The network appealed and the fine was ultimately voided in 2011.
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Lenny’s various casting possibilities are found in the AFI Catalog.
Lenny movie cast info via the IMDb.
Valerie Perrine and Dustin Hoffman Lenny movie images: United Artists.
“Lenny Movie 1974: Miscast Dustin Hoffman Further Impairs Ill-Defined Biopic” last updated in November 2020.