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Lenny Bruce (#110 of 3)

The Indelicate Delinquent in Manic Winter: An Evening with Jerry Lewis

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The Indelicate Delinquent in Manic Winter: An Evening with Jerry Lewis
The Indelicate Delinquent in Manic Winter: An Evening with Jerry Lewis

On the occasion of his 86th birthday last Friday night, Jerry Lewis was in his element: water. He was drooling it onto his feet, wrapping his lips around the rim of a glass, and drinking from a pitcher. Abetted by his on-stage interviewer, comedian and TV cop Richard Belzer, the legendary nightclub performer, jack-of-all-film-trades, and philanthropic veteran of the Muscular Dystrophy Association met the expectations of fans who packed 92nd Street Y’s Kaufmann Auditorium on Manhattan’s Upper East Side by cutting loose with the brand of shameless clowning that has kept him rich and famous since the Truman Administration. Casually crossing his legs and sending a shoe flying into the first row, musically cutting off a Belzer follow-up question with “Was I throoooough?”, and fixing the perpetrator of a solitary laugh with a cartoonish, sneering turn of the head that dates back to his white-hot dual act with Dean Martin, Lewis was primed to give his audience a good time, and what was billed as a tribute by the fraternal comedians’ group The Friars Club morphed into a two-hour reciprocal love-in between childlike idol and uncritical idolators. “I’m nine, and I’ve always been nine,” Lewis self-diagnosed during a breather from his antic agenda. “The beauty of nine is that it’s not complicated.”

“On Broadway” and All That Jazz

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“On Broadway” and <em>All That Jazz</em>
“On Broadway” and <em>All That Jazz</em>

Bob Fosse directed five features in 15 years, starting with 1967’s Sweet Charity and ending with 1983’s Star 80. This pace suggests that Fosse was very deliberate in choosing his material, like Stanley Kubrick or Sergio Leone. Yes and no. Fosse was an obsessive artist, but not about movies—or rather, not just about movies. Seeming to believe that dance was the purest way to express joy, Fosse used moviemaking to exorcise joy’s opposites: not just pain, but the obsessive nature of artists—particularly the way attention to detail can cause men to shut themselves off from the rest of the world. On stage, choreographing sexual-playful spasms of intricate movement, Fosse seemed to revel in his naughty-boy sense of play. But on film, he examined the self-destructive component of celebrity and asserted that self-loathing was the driving force of show business.

Lenny and the Price of Freedom

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<em>Lenny</em> and the Price of Freedom
<em>Lenny</em> and the Price of Freedom

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.