By John H. Foote
How is it Bob Fosse’s extraordinary biography Lenny is a forgotten film?
When the finest films of Academy Award, Emmy Award, and Tony Award winning director Bob Fosse are discussed, two films dominate the conversation: his searing work of art Cabaret (1972) and his semi-autobiographical All That Jazz (1979), musicals both, each legendary for the unique Fosse dance styles.
When the finest performances of Dustin Hoffman are explored, Tootsie (1982) rightfully so tops the list, usually followed by Midnight Cowboy (1969) or, God help us, Rain Man (1988). Where is Lenny? An astonishing achievement for the actor, because the role required him to absolutely nail a well-known stand up comedian’s speech patterns, his ability with a punch line, and the mounting ferocity and rage within his act. Hoffman was not a standup comic, but that he nailed in every conceivable way the first truly revolutionary standup comedian elevated him to another place, that of one of cinema’s greatest actors. Never is Hoffman’s performance any sort of impersonation, never, instead he seems to be imbued by the soul of the great Lenny Bruce.
Revolutionary you say? A comic? Uh oh, John is losing it. Consider this.
Without Lenny Bruce there would be no George Carlin, no Richard Pryor, no Robin Williams nor Sarah Silverman. Bruce created an act based on the evolving world of life, sex, politics and America. Words were his ammunition, his weapons. He used language that had him arrested for obscenity, that same language would be used in most American films not rated G within seven years. His magic was showing audiences the power of words, that hateful, racist words lose all their power when you take away the hate with which they were used. But swearing was not Bruce’s problem, using morphine and heroin was. In fact it would kill him when the socially aware comic overdosed, dying before his time.
Hoffman is simply unbelievable as Bruce, capturing the caustic, very edgy, often nasty Bruce to perfection. After watching the film, it is difficult to know where Bruce ends and Hoffman begins. However, his greatest achievement is finding his humanity, his soul among the many demons Bruce carried with him. Once the film ends you too will be convinced you just watched a documentary about the man’s life, Hoffman is truly that good. That he surpassed this performance over the course of his career is remarkable because for many this would be the apex. He received his third Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in one of the most competitive years in film. The nominees included Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, Art Carney in Harry and Tonto, and Hoffman. Incredibly the least of those performances prevailed with TV veteran Carney awarded the Oscar.
Equally fine is Valerie Perrine as Honey Harlow, the statuesque stripper Bruce married. Harlow too became hooked on drugs, abandoned by Bruce, and virtually, sadly, like Perrine forgotten. We feel her pain, we understand her need to be loved, but as his fame grows, so did his ego, and perhaps his need for her. Perrine never came remotely close to a searing performance of this magnitude again. Such a waste.
Fosse shot the film in black and white, so beautiful it almost shimmers, easily the best work of Bruce Surtees career. Plunging the audience back to the night club days of Bruce.
Nominated for six Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay and Cinematography – the film was both a box office and critical hit but came away empty handed on Oscar night.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.