Friday, 29 January 2016

No truce for Mr Bruce… Lenny (1974)

Whether it’s the stand-up sessions or the striptease, Bob Fosse directs performance exceptionally well. Gritty, sweaty, over-lit and exposed as nervy, vulnerable humanity. Life is a cabaret old chum… and neither Lenny nor Honey could ever be accused of not giving it the old Elsie of Chelsea “go”.

It feels visceral and honest and yet at the end, having witnessed the aftermath of Lenny’s inevitable death from over dose, you wonder whether  writer Julian Barry and Fosse have almost overlooked this crucial aspect of Bruce’s make up.

Dustin on stage
He’s seen here as someone who willfully took on the authorities in order to assert his human rights and to retain his individual voice and its challenge to lazy decency. The battle becomes his obsession as he swots up on law and tries every angle to persuade judges and jurors in minor state courts that it is not his intention to shock through using “inappropriate” sexual and religious but to engender a deeper discourse on their meaning and importance.

Dustin Hoffman
Did he self-medicate because of the struggle or did morphine and other highs actually reduce his focus down to narrow band repetitions of outrage and courtroom process. We’ll never know but whilst the family man, husband and comic are all here the junky is less prominent. But hey, one “we’ll never know” and two, his ending in no way defines the brilliance of his ongoing: this was a masterful talent and one who changed stand up for good and for ever.

Dustin Hoffman makes for a suburb Lenny Bruce prowling the stage eyes alive with the possibilities of his next words – he is so relaxed you feel he is making it up: I don’t know how much was improvised but that’s proper acting?

Valerie performs
Valerie Perrine as showgirl turned wife Honey is his match especially in the flashback sequences that Fosse intermingles with the main narrative. In unforgiving close-up, with no make-up, Perrine plays the role of recovered junky to perfection. Could she have done more to save her on-off man – maybe but she also did very well to survive herself after several stints in prison and a life so much in the way of favours.

Theses framing devices work well as Lenny’s mother (Jan Miner) and agent (Stanley Beck) are also interviewed the former, sharp, intelligent, thought-through and the latter, increasingly revealed as distracted and with other commercial fish to fry.

Honey looks back
Bruce’s relationship with his mother is seen as close and, in fairness, his agent simply tries to keep pace; his post-mortem windfall of LP royalties affecting his attitude more.

But Lenny, on this showing, was in-corruptible blowing his dough and his chances in a search for the truth that is still ongoing. The truth hurts but only because it makes you laugh so much: the truth about words, sex, politics and even Jackie Kennedy who was not trying to save her husband but trying to get out of the car. This does not diminish her but makes her tragically all the more real – doing what anyone of us would have done with our partner apparently dead in front of us. But in 1964 the president’s wife had acted to throw herself as a shield over her man: Lenny wanted to prick the bubble to remove the spin and make us face up to life.

Honey at the check-in
Naturally, he’s a lot braver on stage than off and it takes him a while to summon the courage to ask Honey out on a date. Valerie Perrine had been a showgirl in the past and here she throws some expert shapes that reveal her training in full.

Lenny actually sees her at an airport but pretty much accepts her career at least whilst it’s the only one they can afford… They were made for each other but necessarily all the time and whilst family life progresses, other issue start to come between them – chiefly drugs and Lenny’s desire to push the envelope. He forces Honey into a threesome with a young woman at one of their parties (Kathryn Witt) and then complains that she enjoyed it too much.

Meeting the family
 Lenny’s fuelled by an aggressive need for experience and expression and Honey can’t deal with his pace of life. She succumbs and lapses into use and abuse… the couple divorce with Lenny taking custody of their child. Honey continually runs out of money and then time and is eventually imprisoned.

Honey behind bars
Meanwhile Lenny goes from strength to strength with an act that challenges middle-class mores in ways that were to become common-place. He may well be the inventor of modern stand-up for all I know and Hoffman plays the performances superbly well. In his early days he plays strip clubs – with and without Honey – and it’s no con-incidence that the exposure on stage of one kind, mirrors the other: what you see is what you get from the girls and what you hear is what you get from Lenny.

Strippers and stand-up (ahem) – alike or not: discuss?

But in making friends Lenny also makes many enemies, on purpose and for ever – the judiciary, the police, the feds, everyone who could possibly defend themselves he picks on. The crowds love it but he starts to get into deep water as the authorities fight back, dragging him into their process and robbing him of his comedy initiative: once he took them by surprise and forced many a retreat but now they have him surrounded.

Stand up... in court
Through legal process, weight of numbers and a thousand pointless laws protecting freedom, they gradually rob him of his. He is forced into a legal battle he can never win… he spirals downwards, weighed down by legal text and case law, propped up by drugs as he spends his way into oblivion.

Dusty Verdict: Lenny is a superbly affecting film that raises questions that remain vital to this day – the Tea Party and Mr Trump, the right-wing drift in the UK… these battles for free speech and thought are still being fought. Lenny left his mark and we’re all a bit freer because of it.

Hoffman and Perrine give performances that resonate on deeply human levels and are worth the price of admission alone.

Lenny and Honey drive off in the MG
Lenny is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray – all the better to appreciate Bruce Surtees’ cinematography – from Amazon and others.

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