The subjects of celebrity biopics are almost never as important as the people who make them. Too many celebrities live lives that hit the same beats. This is even true of Lenny Bruce, the infamous and groundbreaking comic who became a martyr in the war against censorship with routines notable for their truthfulness about sex, media, and self-expression, not their alleged dirtiness. Bruce’s career began inauspiciously; he hooked up with a tolerant woman, achieved stardom by pushing boundaries, succumbed to various vices, broke down, and died young. It’s a tale often told. How Bob Fosse told it is rare.
Fosse, off course, made his name in musical theater as an actor, dancer and choreographer, and his cinematic work followed suit when he directed and choreographed the musicals Sweet Charity and Cabaret. A biopic about a comedian may seem an odd choice for Fosse’s third directorial effort. It all makes sense when you see it. Lenny is a musical without a single musical number. Everything from the editing to the actors’ movements appears expertly choreographed, the rhythms flowing from one potentially jarring time jump to the next with the abandon and perfection of a John Coltrane riff.
The director does not deserve all the credit. Dustin Hoffman as Bruce and Valerie Perrine as his wife give landmark performances: Hoffman’s final contempt-of-court monologue is one of the truest things on film, and Perrine’s interview sequences don’t betray a splinter of artifice. But one thing I really dig about Lenny—and which really, really sets it apart from the mass of biopics—is how interested the director is in everyone on screen. I mean everyone. Even the briefly glimpsed audience members seem to have inner lives as they react to Bruce’s routines with laughter, gaping mouths, rolling eyes, blank expressions, or even a complicit and touchingly romantic stolen kiss. As stylized as Fosse’s rhythms and chronology are, his people are utterly real whether they’re participating in an abstract ménage à trois totally fabricated by the director or pseudo-documentary interviews.
Fosse shot Lenny on high-contrast black and white stock, although the smoky, gauzy lighting of nightclubs, crummy apartments, drug dens, and jails defuses its crispness. Twilight Time’s new blu-ray doesn’t sharpen the film, but it is a clean presentation with healthy grain. Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman provide a new commentary track in which they gab about the significant differences between the film and the play on which it was based (both written by Julian Barry), Bruce and Fosse’s careers and legacy, and how Fosse dragged such an extraordinary performance out of Perrine. It’s a lively commentary, but some actual footage of Bruce would have been a cool bonus too. The disc also includes the customary isolated score track and is limited to 3,000 units.
Get Lenny on Screen Archives.com here.