Thoughts on Lenny (1974)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Fantastic Film Festival.

Given how much this Citizen Kane (1941) knock-off of a biopic depends on the myth of Lenny Bruce over the man, it was a distinct pleasure to sit in the second row to see this, especially because it was a showing of an unrestored 35mm film.

Lenny (1974) has its weaknesses, mostly to do with the intentionally fragmented structure, but to me what director Bob Fosse is going for isn’t to find out what made Bruce tick (as is usual for a biopic) but to explore the dark undercurrent of, in the cultural memory, this titan of comedy—shedding light on dark spaces covered over with glamor was a lifelong concern of Fosse’s as a filmmaker. Lenny the film is fragmented because Lenny the man didn’t cohere. And Dustin Hoffman plays this incoherent man with insecure, manic glee.

The nexus between man and myth really shines through when the film cuts between socially barbed stand-up routines and the personal experiences that informed them, be they pain sublimated into observational humor (mostly having to do with his marriage), a sly reference to a sexual conquest (his wink at a seduced Black woman during a bit on integration), or something much more complex. Stand-up is a special art, and this film trades on the myth of one of its masters to hint at how it might be done.

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