Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lenny’s A Riot Without Carl Carlson


The one thing I love about Academy Award season is the large amount of classic, and award nominated, movies that show on television. It is a chance to re-watch old favourites, and to discover previously unseen gems. It also allows us to reflect upon actors/actress whose have spent the majority of their careers delivering outstanding, and often defining, performances. Dustin Hoffman is the perfect example of this.

I had forgotten how great of an actor Dustin Hoffman was back in the sixties and seventies. This is not to say Hoffman is not a good actor today. On the contrary, he can still turn it on at a drop of a hat. Yet, when you review some of the films he starred in between 1967 to 1979, his work in that era is simply jaw dropping: The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs, Lenny, All the President's Men, Marathon Man, and Kramer vs. Kramer. The interesting thing is that Hoffman is often overlooked when discussing great actors. Although widely respected, he does not get the same amount love as other actors, like say Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, of that era. I wonder if this is because Hoffman often opts for playing the everyman instead of the more macho roles that De Niro and Pacino tend to take. I was thinking about this fact while watching Lenny for the first time last week.

Lenny, directed by Bob Fosse, is a biopic that looks at the life of Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), the most controversial comic of the 1960s. The film follows Lenny's as he goes from struggling stand-up comic to underground sensation. We see the ups and downs of his marriage to Honey (Valerie Perrine), a stripper, including their battle with addiction. Yet his marriage to Honey was the least of Bruce’s problems. As Lenny became more popular, the vulgarity he used in his shows became more scrutinized. This resulted in Lenny constantly being arrested on indecency charges. The numerous arrests not only started to damage Lenny’s professional career, but his mental state as well.

Dustin Hoffman is brilliant as Lenny Bruce, he brings a rogue-like charm to the role while never losing site of Bruce's humanity. Several of the best scenes in the movie are not Lenny's stand-up routines, which are great, but his interactions with his wife Honey. As Honey spirals out of control, we are constantly aware of the confliction growing inside Lenny. Bruce knows that she is bad news for both of them, yet he is responsible for making her the way she is. The fact that Hoffman and Perrine have great chemistry together only heightens the turbulent marriage on screen.

If the relationship between Lenny and Honey was not gripping enough, Fosse nicely juxtaposes Lenny’s stand-up routine with many key moments in Bruce’s life. Fosse slowly shows how the many court battles started to alter Lenny. Not only did Bruce’s jokes, and observations, become increasingly political; but the stress of the legal woes impacts his overall mental state as well. One of the most gut-wrenching moments comes when Lenny, who can no longer find work to pay his legal fees, is begging to be thrown in jail but the judge refuses.

It is fascinating watching Lenny in this day and age. Many of the things that Lenny Bruce got arrested for saying are considered tame by today's standards. The film is not just a reminder of how far society has changed in the last fifty years; but also, how much we take freedom of speech for granted. Through his tribulations Lenny Bruce inadvertently became one of the important pioneers of the free speech movement in the sixties. It was a burden that he did not want, but ultimately ended up carrying all the way to his grave. Without Lenny Bruce there would not be the likes of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Judd Apatow, etc. Heck, we probably would not even have Youtube or blogs. If you are looking for a movie to get you ready for Sunday’s Academy Award show, Lenny might be the film for you.


  1. One of my all time favorite performances, in one of my all time favorite films, about one of my all time favorite historical figures.

    I like that you zero in on Lenny's relationship with Honey, since it's so often the more underappreciated narrative of this film. I feel the urge to re-watch it now keeping in mind everything you've said.

    I think the other amazing thing about Hoffman's performance, is to examine how his delivery of Bruce's material changes depending on the point in the story. You could easily close your eyes and tell when he's doing the later-period monologues given the amount of subtle anger he injects into the lines.

    This is FAR too underrated a film!

  2. @Hatter – I agree that this film is way underrated. I am surprised it took me so long to discover it. There is so much going on in the film yet it all works. Fosse does a great job of juggling all the different threads. There is not one moment that I would cut from the film.

    You make a great point about the change in Bruce’s delivery; the venom is subtle at first but very present towards the end. Hoffman is unreal in the film. He could have just recited Bruce’s routine for two hours and it would still be riveting.

  3. Wow, I have never seen this movie. I have to watch it NOW! ;) I absolutely love vintage Dustin Hoffman. I like him better than DeNiro and Pacino combined!

  4. @Miss Topanga - If you love vintage Hoffman then you should definitely seek out a copy of the film. He is simply brillant in the role.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.