Lenny opens in shocking fashion, with an extreme close-up of Valerie Perrine’s mouth. Perrine is playing Honey Bruce, the ex-wife of comic Lenny Bruce. Though it’s a pretty obvious homage by director Bob Fosse to Orson Welles and one of the earliest, most famous shots in Citizen Kane, the effect is entirely different. The close-up is so extreme that the tiny hairs around Perrine’s mouth are visible. The shot of Charlie Kane’s mouth is fantastical; this shot of Honey’s mouth is obscene.
In terms of content, she is talking about Lenny Bruce’s many drug and obscenity arrests, but the visual impact of that strange close-up is what we remember. After some brief moments of Bruce’s act during his brief prime and more of the film’s frequent Kane-like interview-driven narrative, the film starts in earnest—not with star Dustin Hoffman recreating the comic’s early nightclub days, but with Perrine recreating the early career of Honey Bruce, a.k.a. stripper Honey Harlow.
The scene is the most obviously Fosse-like in the film, and not only because it includes some dancing and exposed female flesh. Intercutting Perrine’s stylized movements with the reactions of an audience comprised of horny young men, seemingly depraved oldsters, and a few odd lesbians, it almost seems to be casting the audience in the role of villains at worst, passive bystanders at best—an odd way to lead into the set-up of the story of a comedian who tried to free the mind of a nation, but who succeeded mainly in freeing its mouth. Some of this may be simply due to the astonishing quality of Perrine’s performance, as well as the fact that Fosse got along well with Perrine while struggling with Hoffman, but that isn’t all.
In 1974, Fosse was flying as high as any director alive. Just two years before he had scored an unheard of triple crown of directing awards—an Emmy, a Tony, and an Oscar. That Oscar was for his second film, Cabaret, which had successfully reconstructed the film musical for an audience that saw ordinary musicals as silly and, much worse than that, unhip. The film made millions and garnered five Oscars against another genuine instant classic, The Godfather. A high school graduate from a working class background, by now Fosse’s best male friends were writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner; the 47-year-old former hoofer had transcended his crowd pleasing show business roots to become a director who was taken seriously as an artist. At the same time, it seems fairly clear that Fosse was the poster boy for impostor syndrome and probably took on Lenny because he felt some kind of kinship with Bruce, who rose from third-rate comic to international fame and respect, but was ultimately destroyed by legal problems, obsession, and drug addiction. Fosse was not a particular fan of Bruce’s, though he was a longtime friend of Buddy Hackett, whose potty-mouthed, gag-based comedy was less controversial primarily, I’m sure, because he was no social critic.
Lenny, adapted by writer Julian Barry from his own Off Broadway play, focuses almost obsessively on the perils of show business, but it’s also the story of a willful artistic transformation. In the film, Bruce’s development seems to begin in earnest after an unpleasant on-stage encounter with an older comic modeled on Milton Berle. The Berle figure, played with maximum venom by comedian-turned-producer Gary Morton, is repugnant and massively hypocritical, oozing false charm while crudely flirting with Honey, by now Lenny’s wife, and attacking the young comic for a mildly crude, offhand double entendre. Later, Lenny extracts a seemingly costly revenge. After bringing the older comic on stage, he tells the audience that, by way of apology, “I think I’m gonna piss on you.” No more double entendres. Lenny, the third-rate tummler, is consigned to burlesque houses, but is artistically freed and able to find his voice, while becoming more than a little compliant in his own martyrdom via heroin, pills, and the American legal system.
A lifelong overachiever, Fosse had never been a third-rate anything, but for him the issue of whether he was, at heart, much more than a cheap showman would infuse much of his later work. Also, of course, there was the matter of chemical self-destruction. If you’ve seen the openly autobiographical All That Jazz, in which Fosse had girlfriend Jessica Lange playing the angel of death as the protagonist’s apparent one-true-love, there’s not that much more to say about that. Lenny Bruce’s quote: “I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God,” could have come straight from the mouth of Fosse-stand in Joe Gideon.
The identification becomes more complicated when you know more. Martin Gottfried’s often questionable biography, All His Jazz, states that the frequently noted incident in the film in which Lenny manipulates Honey into bisexual threesomes with other women, was entirely an invention of Fosse and Julian Barry, inspired by Fosse’s personal obsession with three-way sex. Certainly, the viciousness of Lenny’s subsequent attack on his wife, in which he hypocritically castigates Honey for doing exactly what he begged her to do, seems to foreshadow the projected self-loathing of Fosse’s only other overt biopic, Star 80, in which the filmmaker perversely asks his audience to identify with Dorothy Stratten’s sleazy manager husband and killer, Paul Snider. Of course, Lenny Bruce is a far more redeemable character than Snider and shows remorse for his behavior, though we can also see that the (fictional) attack will not be forgotten. We see the incident directly influencing his comedy, but not in a positive way. His material on “dykes” is as close as Lenny gets to being genuinely offensive in the film and includes a nasty, unsubtle jab at Honey.
Lenny is a fascinating, beautifully wrought black and white film with any number of riveting moments, but I think it’s for more than gonadal reasons that I keep returning to that early sequence featuring “Hot Honey Harlow.” Like so many key scenes in Fosse’s films, it strongly hints that a show business and human dignity are unavoidably at odds, but also beautiful. Fosse was, from everything I’ve read and seen, too obsessed with his work and personal issues to have had much interest in politics. However, he was very much interested in free expression—his free expression. But, then again, he is of two minds regarding the consequences. Just as the “Air-Rotica” sequence from All That Jazz exploits sexual freedom while depicting it as ultimately alienating, he doesn’t seem terribly interested in throwing out an alternative. Ultimately, Fosse’s characters have no choice but to be who they are, and do what they do. If Lenny is a tragedy, it’s because Lenny Bruce couldn’t separate his artistic, legal, emotional, and physical problems, and the film doesn’t necessarily suggest that he should have tried.
All that’s clear in the film is that Lenny was in an impossible bind. Comedy is hard, but, by the end of his career, Lenny Bruce was no longer even trying to be funny.
Bob Westal is the creator of the site Forward to Yesterday.